Space Cowboys

Oklahoma Gazette | July 13, 2005
A series of thunderclaps boomed across the Texas sky that signaled the death of the space shuttle Columbia and all its seven crew.

“There were eight, maybe 12 booms — boom, boom, boom!” a firefighter told the Houston Chronicle. “When I heard those booms, it started splitting up in seven or eight pieces.”

Fuel tank insulation struck Columbia’s wing on launch and knocked a hole in the heat shield. When Columbia smacked into the earth’s atmosphere at 12,000 miles an hour on re-entry, friction-heated air torched through the hole and melted the wing frame. The shuttle tore apart. Flaming pieces of spaceship rained over east Texas. Near Hemphill, a scrap of space suit drifted into a tree. A belt buckle fell beside the road into town. A helmet landed in a front yard. A human torso hit near a playground. Destruction littered the area.

The cost of space can be high, and more is at stake than just money.

Now, one of NASA’s three surviving shuttles sits again on a pad, expected to launch Wednesday. The United States will again be back in space.

But wait. Americans already have been back. A civilian airplane designer named Burt Rutan built a homemade spaceship that flew just into the edge of space and returned again — three times. It won the Ansari X Prize and now a version of it is being developed by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson to take tourists into space. At about $30 million, Rutan’s SpaceShipOne cost a fraction of the multi-billion-dollar shuttle. People like Rutan say if humans are going to maintain a presence in space, it has to be this way instead of the boondoggles produced by NASA.

Several companies are making such ships, and one is in Oklahoma.

“We don’t fly as high and as fast. We are flying just an eighth of the velocity of the shuttle,” said David Urie, vice president of Rocketplane Limited Inc.

Urie, a storied and experienced engineer who designed spy planes, rockets and Pentagon “black” projects for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s famed Skunk Works, is building Oklahoma’s spaceship. He and the others at Rocketplane even convinced Oklahoma state officials to shell out $18 million in taxpayer funds for start-up.

Rocketplane intends to become the first commercial vehicle to fly people into space for a joy ride. But technology, mechanics, financing and business plans are pushing the envelope.

“It’s a big gamble. No question about it. It’s serious. We are very much aware of that obligation,” Urie told Oklahoma Gazette.

That’s what one company, set to supply the rocket’s engine, thinks. It recently announced that it wants Rocketplane to have $100 million in insurance.

To sail beyond the sunset

In the Nineties, private investors believed the potential existed to take citizens up for a short blast at a high cost. Interest fired up when the Ansari family offered the “X Prize,” $10 million for the first private launch into space, won by Rutan.

When Rocketplane set out to make Oklahoma’s first spaceship, the company had Rutan as a lead dog to watch. Backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to the tune of around $25 million, Rutan’s ship was made to fly to space and safely return. But now the plane has to be redesigned to actually carry paying customers.

“Going after the prize was a diversion. The real prize is the business. And the prize did wonders for the business. That was the event that triggered all this interest. It shows a small effort, a small team, non-government funded effort can achieve a ride to space,” Urie said. “I think the general public is very sensitized to the idea that in the next few years there is going to be a chance to ride to space.”

Speaking of government funding, in 1999 the Space Authority Industry Development Act was signed into law, creating the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority (OSIDA) to regulate the state’s space endeavors. The creation of the statute went much smoother than the implementation.

OSIDA’S first order was to find a location where spaceships could launch and dock. The state has several locations to choose from, but early on, Burns Flat became the top candidate. The abandoned Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base, just south of Interstate 40 about 100 miles west of Oklahoma City, had an attractive runway considered one of the five longest in the country. But the site was getting extra help.

“I was lobbying for a spaceport that could be anywhere, near Tulsa, Enid, Norman. But it became clear after a while it was going to Burns Flat,” said Donna Shirley, former OSIDA board member. “Don Rodolf, (then) the mayor of Clinton, and Jay Edwards, who was executive director of OSIDA, were really determined to have it at Burns Flat for reasons I really don’t understand.”

Shirley’s extensive background with NASA made her a technical expert on the OSIDA board. A native of Wynnewood, Shirley rose to prominence when she became program director of the Mars Pathfinder project. Scientists with that program became world famous when millions watched the Mars Sojourner Rover tool about in the red Martian dust.

Back on earth, set firmly in the red dirt of western Oklahoma, the town of Clinton owned a defunct air base in Burns Flat. Having the spaceport there could be a financial windfall for Clinton. Mayor Rodolf, who sits on the OSIDA board, had considerable influence. Records of OSIDA meeting minutes show Rodolf abstained from most votes pertaining to the spaceport location, but not every time. As Clinton’s mayor, Rodolf also was involved in the negotiations and title transfer of the base to OSIDA, which proved to be one of the sticking points for the authority.

From the beginning of OSIDA’s inception, making Burns Flat the state’s spaceport has been a main priority.

State officials spent more than $8 million of federal money trying to get the base renovated. OSIDA spent nearly another $1 million in state funds conducting Federal Aviation Administration-required environmental and safety studies. But after five years and millions of taxpayer dollars, Burns Flat is still without a license, even though statements to OSIDA officials over the years regularly indicated a license was imminent. Holdups have been transferring the base to state control and conducting an environmental impact study.

The authority was first told in early 2003 the study would be done by the end of the year. Then eight months later, the board was informed the study should be completed by the fall of 2004.

This past May, the board learned the study was “almost complete.” Officials are putting the final touches on the study. Once completed, it will then go through a federal review. Officials expect the review to be completed by December.

OSIDA Executive Director Bill Khourie said licensing and study delays aren’t unusual because this is the first inland spaceport to be built.

‘A unique tool for economic development’

In the late Nineties, lawmakers from western Oklahoma saw the potential to lure those would-be space companies to the state and began working on legislation to entice them. When coming up with legislative incentives, Sen. Gilmer Capps, D-Snyder, got advice from one space enthusiast.

Capps said Charles “Chuck” Lauer discussed possible legislation offering tax credits for aerospace businesses to come to Oklahoma, intent on space launches. Lauer would later help found Rocketplane.

“Chuck wanted to see if we could pass an incentive in Oklahoma,” Capps said. “At the time I didn’t know about Lauer’s connection” to Rocketplane. “I didn’t know he even knew George French.”

French is president of Rocketplane. He and Lauer have collaborated on other aerospace companies before Rocketplane.

Earning his fortune in the advertising business, French heavily invested in aerospace industry companies such as Orbitec, Orbital Sciences Corporation and Kistler Aerospace Corporation.

In 2001, the Oklahoma Space Industry Tax Incentive was enacted, offering huge tax credits for space exploring companies to land in Oklahoma. The law mirrored the statute created to lure Great Plains Airlines to the state, but couldn’t save taxpayers from losing more than $26 million when the airline folded in 2004. Concerns are being raised about the space tax credit because of its similarities to the Great Plains deal.

“Too much so,” said Capps. “The experience with Great Plains, I backed it. But 9/11 upset a lot of things.”

This excuse differs greatly from Urie’s, who claims Great Plains purchased direct flights to the coasts but bought planes that couldn’t travel that distance.

In order to qualify for the tax credit, a company must meet four criteria. The company must be headquartered in Oklahoma, have $10 million in equity capitalization, commitment from a local government and qualify for the state’s Quality Jobs Act.

The problem isn’t what’s in the law but rather what is left out.

State law did not require Rocketplane to submit any technical plans to anyone. Shirley said she asked to review Rocketplane’s plans to no avail.

“I thought they would have to have a technically viable approach as well as financial viable,” Shirley said. “But I found out the way the legislation was written, there wasn’t anything in there about technical capabilities.”

Shirley said she didn’t feel she was “doing any good” on the OSIDA board and resigned.

When asked about the lack of technical scrutiny, Capps said it already exists when a company applies for the Quality Jobs Act through the state Department of Commerce. DOC Deputy General Counsel Don Hackler said in Rocketplane’s application, the company had aeronautical engineers review and comment on the technical specifications.

Once a company qualifies as a space vehicle transportation provider, then it’s on to getting some money back. To earn the tax credit, an investor must pour cash into the company. The tax credit actually goes to the investor, not the company, up to 60 percent of the investment, not to exceed $18 million. The best part, for the investor, is the credit is transferable. That gives the option of taking the credit and either using it as a tax rebate or just selling it immediately to a bank and getting cold hard cash.

“It’s a unique tool for economic development,” said Dawn Cash, general counsel for the Oklahoma Tax Commission. “The majority of tax credits are not transferable. The Great Plains tax credits were transferable.”

And everyone knows how that worked out.

The tax credit has landed

Rocketplane’s experimental method for going into space can only be matched by how it obtained the state’s tax credit of $18 million. With only minutes to spare before the law creating the tax credit expired, Dec. 31, 2003, Rocketplane landed the deal.

For months in 2003, the company had been going back and forth with the Oklahoma Tax Commission. OTC officials had several concerns with the company’s financial plans and statements.

On Nov. 25, 2003, Cash wrote a letter to French stating she had a number of concerns and said she was not prepared to make a positive recommendation to the board of commissioners.

Then the day before Rocketplane was granted to be a qualified space transportation provider, and two days before being awarded the tax credit, Cash sent an e-mail to Kelli Jackson, OTC assistant general counsel, saying the two should “do a memo to the file commemorating our concerns with the Rocketplane Corporate structure, etc.”

One concern was a study conducted by Futron Corporation claiming a market for suborbital travel. The study, done in 2002, indicated 17 percent of the U.S. population worth more than $1 million would be willing to pay $200,000 to fly into space.

In an internal memo, Cash wrote Rocketplane would not receive a positive recommendation based on that study.

But by Dec. 30, Rocketplane put its spaceships in a row and was deemed an Oklahoma space transportation vehicle provider.

Dec. 31 would be the launch or abort day for the company.

According to e-mails obtained by the Gazette, officials at OTC anxiously awaited the paperwork to approve handing out a tax credit.

Chrissy Paape with Space Explorers, another company owned by French, informed Cash that French would be meeting with local bankers to finalize a loan package at 11 a.m. Two hours later, Cash informed her boss that French had yet to obtain the loan papers. Another hour went by before Cash received the loan documents.

French obtained a $30 million loan Dec. 31 from BancFirst and invested the money into Rocketplane.

“Which absolutely amazes me,” Cash e-mailed a fellow OTC employee about French closing the loan on New Year’s Eve.

The loan qualified French for the $18 million tax credit, the maximum amount. He then sold the tax credit, getting $13 million, which went to Rocketplane. In order to get the full tax credit, the law required a minimum $30 million investment.

“Why that looks strange that they did not get that credit until the last minute, it’s very logical to me,” Cash told the Gazette. “Because that process wouldn’t even be triggered until they qualified as a space transportation vehicle provider. And they did not achieve that status until late in December. Once they qualified, they were rushing to get the loan.”

Rocketplane officials label the tax credit the “O Prize.” More than a dozen companies vied for the prize. Two took up residence in Burns Flat, including one company, Armadillo Aerospace, founded by the creator of the popular video game Doom.

But in the end Rocketplane would blast away from the competition and snatch up the state’s money. State officials say Rocketplane roared ahead of the others mainly due to having the proper paperwork at the proper time. But the company may have also benefited from having an Oklahoma general on its side.

Private company, public funds

Former Tinker Air Force Base Cmdr. Gen. Jay Edwards was the first executive director of OSIDA. He was heading up the agency as companies were competing for the state’s prize. An applicant had to maneuver through three hoops before claiming the prize, starting with OSIDA. Then it was on to the state Department of Commerce and finally the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

Edwards became a key ally for Rocketplane.

“He thought Rocketplane had the best proposal,” Shirley said.

In October 2003, Edwards left his $85,000-a-year job with OSIDA, which had selected Rocketplane for Burns Flat. Two months later, the state gave Rocketplane tax credit funds with former state employee Edwards now a paid officer with the company. According to Vice President Urie, Edwards is often busy in Washington, D.C., lobbying on behalf of Rocketplane. Edwards was not available for comment.

Several state officials kept their eye on Rocketplane’s application for the tax credit. On Dec. 17, 2003, Cash received a phone call from then State Finance Director Scott Meacham saying several legislators were concerned Rocketplane had been rejected. OTC Acting Director Tony Mastin told Cash he fielded some questions from Senate staff concerning the matter that same day.

While several companies are still vying to become a qualified space transportation vehicle provider in Oklahoma, they can probably forget getting any tax credits.

“I don’t think we’ll give that tax credit out again,” said Sen. Capps. “We need all the funds coming in as we can get.”

But it leaves the state putting all its space eggs in one basket. And once the state gave $18 million in taxpayer money to Rocketplane, the private company is not required to explain its spending practices.

A year ago, Rocketplane contracted with Orbitec to build Rocketplane’s engine. The Wisconsin-based company not only has French as an investor but Orbitec President Eric Rice is on Rocketplane’s board of directors. To complicate matters more, Rocketplane lately shifted gears and is now buying its engine from another company, Rocketdyne.

Urie took blame for the change, saying he gave too stringent of a timeline for Orbitec to build an engine. He said Rocketplane still has a contract with Orbitec but hasn’t decided what Orbitec will build now.

It is unknown how much Rocketplane is paying Orbitec and if the money French earned from the state tax credit that he put back in the company is being used.

But Urie said the $13 million derived from the tax credit is currently Rocketplane’s budget and has been the main funds being used for company expenses. Meanwhile, French recently spoke to American-Indian tribal leaders and mentioned Rocketplane is currently soliciting partnerships.

As this story published, the Associated Press reported that Rocketplane’s rocket engine maker, Rocketdyne, won’t sell to the Oklahoma-based company without Rocketplane obtaining a $100 million insurance policy.

“This presents a huge stumbling block,” Urie told AP.

Rocketplane is experiencing another obstacle recruiting engineers to come to Oklahoma and work for the company. Urie said Oklahoma’s schools produce fine engineers, but they must leave the state to find a job. Of Rocketplane’s nearly 30 employees, only four are from Oklahoma.

“Our biggest problem is keeping the right people here,” Urie said. “If we could just get the people with the right skills soon enough. We are determined it shall not (delay) the launch, but we could fail in our quest.”

Rocketplane has also contracted with another Wisconsin company to provide space education programs to schools in Oklahoma. Last November, Rocketplane purchased educational materials from Space Explorers and is providing programs to schools free of charge.

French also happens to be president of Space Explorers. Again, the amount of the purchase and whether tax credit money was used are unknown.

Skyrockets in flight

For an engineer like Urie, all flight is about probability, and he thinks the numbers are on his side.

“It’s a measure of the difficulty of solving the problem,” Urie said. “You can handle the probabilities of failure if you have enough margin, if you put in enough redundancy and subsystems and enough margin in terms of the physical loads that something carries.”

Perhaps the biggest star on Urie’s chart of accomplishments (the ones that aren’t top secret) is his role as chief engineer and then as program director of the famed SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.

Only recently retired, the Blackbird was a sleek, knifelike plane that regularly flew three times the speed of sound, higher and faster than any normal airplane. The pilots wore space suits. The plane flew so fast that it glowed red-hot. The quartz windows were too hot to touch from the friction caused by the plane cutting through the thin atmosphere. The only thing faster was a moon rocket. Now that the Blackbird is mothballed, there might be an even faster, even more classified spy plane called the Aurora, but Urie ignored any questions about such.

Pretty good credentials for a guy who wants to build the Rocketplane.

“The vehicles I am used to working on at the Skunk Works, we were always pushing for performance in some way or another,” Urie said. “I’m not a genius designer. I’m a program manager. I have a good idea of what goes well together.”

Urie said he retired from the Skunk Works after a space plane he designed for NASA, the X-33, was underfunded until it was cut completely. Space is expensive, but it doesn’t have to be, he said.

“It’s all within the box of possibility. That’s adjustable,” Urie said. “The problems are the same, it’s just that billion-dollar programs take more people to solve. We narrow it down so that the problems are squashed down. You know, ‘Honey, I shrunk the problems.’”

‘A real nice symbiotic relationship’

Urie’s approach to building a space plane is very “Skunk Work-esque.” When the Skunk Works was tasked to build the first spy plane, the U-2, it took a known fighter design, cut the delta wings off, put long, gull-like wings on it for high flight and made other modifications. In six months, the U.S. military and intelligence complex had its first spy plane, which still flies today.

In contrast, Urie’s team at Rocketplane chose the Learjet, a former Swiss air force fighter design. Urie’s team decided to cut off the Learjet’s long wings and attach a delta wing to allow the plane to break the sound barrier.

“It’s being tooled up in Guthrie right now. It’s a simple wing,” Urie said of the Spirit Wing Aviation company. “It’s not as sophisticated even as a business jet wing. It doesn’t have an awful lot to do like an airplane wing does. It just gets us up to rocket ignition altitude and then helps us land at a reasonable speed,” Urie said.

The fuselage, or main body of the plane, will be stretched to accommodate the rocket engine, tank and fuel. The rocket engine, a Rocketdyne RS-88, is a liquid-fuel rocket engine that uses regular jet fuel mixed with liquid oxygen, technology that has seen nearly 50 years of use. It will be packed into the plane with 9,000 gallons of fuel and liquid oxygen.

Oh, and four people. Two passengers, two crew.

“The jet engines are still on board. We are going to use those to take off and climb to our rocket ignition altitude,” Urie said.

According to Urie and others involved in the project, the plane will take off using the conventional Learjet engines from the 13,500-foot runway at Burns Flat. Because the Rocketplane will have smaller wings with less lift, and be heavier with fuel, it will need the long runway to take off and climb to altitude. Convenient, since Oklahoma is working to have the site FAA approved as a spaceport by December.

“There is a real nice symbiotic relationship between us and OSIDA,” French said.

Space reservations

The millionaires will line up, Urie said, to see the stars and get their wings.

“It’s a very elaborate roller coaster car that rides a virtual rail,” Urie said. “We will fly up range, do a 180-degree turn, and then do the pull up and rocket ignition … so that an unpowered descent will bring us back to the Burns Flat runway.”

When the rocket ignites, the passengers and crew are pressed into their seats with about four times their weight standing on earth. The engine will burn less than a minute, Urie said. At a 75-degree grade, the plane will shoot up out of the earth’s atmosphere and into suborbital space — about 62 miles high. The horizon will be curved.

“The sky is black. You can see the stars when you don’t have bright objects in the foreground. You can easily see the stars in a way you can never see them from the surface of the earth,” Urie said.

At this point, the passengers and crew will go from weighing four times normal to weighing almost nothing. It’s called free fall, or microgravity. They will float in their seats.

“There will be pilot type restraints,” Urie explained. “The customers will remain secured in their seats for the ballistic arc, the three or four minutes of microgravity. We will consider letting them out of their seats if we can safely provide a way to get them back in their seats before they encounter re-entry. We don’t want somebody lodged in an awkward attitude, across a seat back, when we hit four Gs. It’s bad for the spine.”

The plane will steer itself with an automatic guidance system, like a cruise missile. In space, since there is no air outside the plane, the flaps, tail and wings won’t work. It will have to use little nozzles that steer the plane with jets of helium. Once the plane begins to fall back to earth, the helium jets will position it to re-enter the atmosphere.

Re-entry is dangerous. Although the Rocketplane won’t be going as fast as Columbia, it will still get hot as it hits the atmosphere. The passengers will be thrown forward in their seats, again at four times their weight. On the leading edges of the plane, the nose, wings, tail and the two jet engines, the air will heat up to 700 degrees for a few seconds.

“The leading edge of the wing, the vertical tails, and the nose cap are going to be stainless steel because that’s where the high temperatures are,” Urie said. “Our heating is so brief that there is a pulse that just gets dissipated into the aluminum. It soaks into the aluminum, but it never gets hot enough to weaken it. On the fuselage we are designing, it will get to 150 degrees and the wing will get up to 200 degrees. The cabin will be comfortable, shirtsleeve environment.”

Once in the atmosphere, the pilot will restart the jet engines and the Rocketplane will coast back to Burns Flat. If the landing doesn’t look right — unlike the space shuttle — the Rocketplane can circle around for another try.

“They can circle back around if there is a steer on the runway,” Urie quipped.

When the intrepid Oklahoma astronauts land, there is champagne, a banquet and a ceremony in which they are pinned with their civilian astronaut wings. Then they will be part of a very few in a very different mile-high club.

Of course, they have to build the Rocketplane first, Urie said.

“Right now, we’re just sitting on the edge of the bed telling her how good it’s going to be,” Urie said.

‘Sucker Day,’ megabust … or Burns Flattened?

The town of Wetumka, about 85 miles east of Oklahoma City on Highway 9, used to celebrate “Sucker Day,” a reminder of the past when a showman came to town offering tickets for his circus then promptly slid out of town with a loot of cash. More recently, Eufaula, just a little further east on Highway 9, was promised celebrities galore with its Mega Star amphitheater investment, which became a megabust.

Hoping not to become part of that folklore are the folks 100 miles to the west of Oklahoma City in Burns Flat.

Millions of taxpayer dollars have been handed over to a company for a business hardly known. In fact, what the company is attempting has never been done before and there is no guarantee it will lift off the ground.

If it works, Oklahoma’s Rocketplane will gain notoriety worldwide and could challenge Sooner football as the state’s main attraction. If it doesn’t, Burns Flat could be another Wetumka.

Had the venture stayed in the confines of private investors hoping to tap into an emerging market, the consequences would be minimal. But when the government throws in $18 million, Oklahomans are along for the ride.

Oklahoma Gazette

In its inaugural issue of Oct. 15, 1979, Oklahoma Gazette, at that time an upstart, bimonthly publication with a mere 2,000 circulation, featured a page-one story about the Oklahoma City Council’s recent passage of an urban conservation district. Hardly sexy...
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