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Reda Anderson doesn´t believe in intangibles. She made good money in Southern California real estate, and she sees no reason to put funds in an investment she can't see, touch, and ask pointed questions about. That´s why she´s in Guthrie, Oklahoma, peering into the sawed-off fuselage of an old business jet. She has a lot at stake in this investment-this old bird will soon be taking her into space.
Structural engineer Derrick Seys carefully explains the lines and arrows drawn on the outside of the ship, which resemble the markings doctors place on patients being prepped for surgery. His crew will splice together the bodies of two jets to add 20 inches of length. The extra room will accommodate kerosene and liquid-oxygen tanks, which will power a 36,000-pound-thrust rocket engine they plan to stick up the plane´s tail. The rocket engine, plus an all-new delta-wing assembly taking shape on a scaffold beside the fuselage, will turn this former Lear 25-once a high-flying chariot for business execs-into an even higher-flying spaceship.
This is the new face of astronautics, where innovations are driven not by government contracts but by rich folks seeking once-in-a-lifetime thrills. Anderson, a 66-year-old grandmother, is the first customer of Rocketplane, a small company selling $200,000 rides into suborbital space that will last all of 45 minutes from liftoff to touchdown. She´s here to make reasonably sure that the thing won´t blow her to bits over the Oklahoma plains. "If you think I don´t know that I could absolutely die in this," Anderson says matter-of-factly, "you´ve got to be an idiot."
Who would be crazy enough to try to blast a rocketized Learjet (hardly a vehicle designed for the rigors of spaceflight) at three times the speed of sound out of the atmosphere-with demanding rich people on board? Top engineers recruited from NASAand mainline aerospace firms such as Lockheed Martin, Cessna and even Learjet itself, as it turns out. Sometime in 2008, Rocketplane says, its creation, called the Rocketplane XP, will take off from a runway powered by the Learjet 25´s stock General Electric CJ610 jet engines with three passengers and a pilot on board. It will climb to 25,000 feet, where it will ignite its rocket. A 70-second boost will send the ship coasting out of the atmosphere-66 miles above Earth-for four minutes of weightless flight and a view stretching west to the Rocky Mountains and south to the Gulf of Mexico. The spaceship will reenter the atmosphere in a controlled, if bumpy, glide like the space shuttle and restart the jets at 25,000 feet for a powered landing back home.
The idea was dreamed up by engineer and Air Force test-pilot instructor Mitchell Burnside Clapp, who formed Pioneer Rocketplane in 1996 to go after the $10-million Ansari X Prize for the first private company to send a reusable spacecraft into suborbital space. The company´s effort never got past the design phase, however-Clapp and partners Chuck Lauer (now Rocketplane´s business-development manager) and entrepreneur Robert Zubrin (who left the venture in 1998) couldn´t find enough cash. Burt Rutan´s SpaceShipOne won the X Prize in 2004.
But the X Prize brought credibility to the idea of private spaceflight and, with it, investment capital. Now the race is on to see who can be first to market with a suborbital tourist ship. Rutan is hard at work on SpaceShipTwo for airline tycoon Richard Branson´s Virgin Galactic. Russia´s Myasishchev Design Bureau has begun selling tickets through Virginia-based Space Adventures on its proposed five-seat, air-launched vehicle. Other ventures in various stages of development are Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, SpaceDev, SpaceX . . . the list goes on. Rocketplane´s own funding comes courtesy of its new president, George French, a space enthusiast who saw Rocketplane´s plan as "a viable small-vehicle option" for reaching space at a profit. His cash and an Oklahoma state tax-credit deal worth $13 million gave Rocketplane the boost it needed to finally get off the drawing board. In fact, the company had enough capital to purchase bankrupt rocket manufacturer Kistler Aerospace early this year; now it´s working to prove that a scheme that at first glance might seem harebrained could actually work.