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Sub-orbital flights on time for 2007

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Thu Jul 7, 2005 12:41 am
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Kendal Kelly, Associated Press Writer: OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – An Oklahoma-based company is on schedule to offer sub-orbital spacecraft flights to tourists by early 2007, despite subcontractors’ liability concerns and a shortage of engineers, a company official said Tuesday.

Due to the risky nature of the company’s venture, subcontractors are “nervous” and demanding staggering insurance amounts, Rocketplane Limited Inc. Vice President David Urie said. Rocketdyne, the company’s rocket engine supplier, is asking $100 million for ground testing alone, he said.

“This presents a huge stumbling block,” said Urie, who is in negotiations to determine reasonable insurance prices.

The Oklahoma City company has also had a difficult time recruiting engineers in Oklahoma, and has broadened its efforts across the nation to find 25 to 30 more engineers.

“It’s too bad so many of them take their diplomas and leave the state,” Urie said.

If the problems aren’t solved, Urie said it could delay the project “a great deal.”

However, Urie said he expects the company’s Rocketplane XP spacecraft to be completely constructed by midsummer next year. The spacecraft is currently in the detail and design phase, Urie said.

Once completed, the Rocketplane will take customers willing to dish out between $150,000 and $200,000 on a 45-minute flight that reaches 330,000 feet _ or over 60 miles _ above Earth, where they will see the planet’s curvature and experience 3 to 4 minutes without gravity.

The spacecraft will seat two passengers and two crew members and will take off and land like an airplane but with a reusable rocket engine. Rocketplane plans to launch from Oklahoma’s spaceport at the old Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base near Burns Flat, which boasts a 13,503-foot runway.

Before transporting its first passengers, the Rocketplane will go on about 50 test runs and must be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is expected to grant the spaceport a space launch license by December, Urie said.

Urie said creating the first Rocketplane will cost between $30 million and $35 million and be funded by the state of Oklahoma and private investors. The state gave the company a $15 million tax credit, which Rocketplane sold to provide financing for the development of its spacecraft.

“Oklahoma wants us here,” Urie said. “They provided financial incentive to get us here. I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else now.”

The company hopes to eventually have three Rocketplanes that would each launch 50 times a year, he said.

Last year, Rocketplane tentatively priced the tickets at $100,000, but raised that amount when it learned that a competing suborbital spacecraft tourism company, Virgin Galactic, has set its price at $200,000.

A market research study isolated the company’s target population as those who have either $1 million in net worth or make $250,000 annually, Urie said. Approximately 7.5 million Americans fall into those categories.

The prices to ride should get progressively lower as the industry develops, Urie said.

Although California-based Virgin Galactic is striving to launch passengers into space before Rocketplane, he said his company is not “racing” against the competition.

“We’re going as fast as we can go,” Urie said. “We’re doing everything we can do … but I think we’ll be first.”

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