Headlines > News > Interview with Mitchell Burnside Clapp of Rocketplane Ltd. Inc

Interview with Mitchell Burnside Clapp of Rocketplane Ltd. Inc

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Tue Jan 4, 2005 5:55 pm
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chabot imagetransterrestrial.com by Rand Simberg : Mitchell Burnside Clapp is the CEO and founder of Pioneer Rocketplane and the Director of Flight Systems at Rocketplane Limited. He graduated from MIT in 1984 with two degrees in Aerospace Engineering, one in Physics, and another in Russian, establishing an apparent trend of being constitutionally unable to limit himself to just one field of endeavor. During 1988 he attended the USAF Test Pilot School, whence he graduated in that year to work on the YA-7F program, serve as an instructor on the school’s staff, and later as the Air Force’s flight test person on the DC-X program. It was this experience that led to his initial involvement with the alt.space community, and indirectly to his development of aerial propellant transfer technology to enable horizontal takeoff, horizontal landing spaceplanes.

When I first met Mitchell, he was a major assigned to the USAF Phillips Laboratory, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Shortly after that (but hopefully not as a result of our meeting), he left active-duty military service in 1996 to found Pioneer Rocketplane, which won a series of contracts from NASA, the DoD, and the state of California as well as significant private investment and contracted efforts. He is also the CEO of another technology startup called Short Order Video.

He claims (with some reason, I might add) to have a wife, several patents, three children (two beautiful daughters, and a son, of whom Mitchell is apparently too charitable to provide a physical description, though I’m sure he’s probably a strapping handsome lad as well), two houses, a dog, a cat, many songwriting credits, a growing expertise in wine, and (as he apparently attempted to demonstrate here) pitiably little skill at writing biographical information about himself. I should add that in addition to Russian, and almost-passable English, as a result of misspending much of his youth in one of the most lord-forsaken corners of the Outback, he speaks the most difficult language of all, so well that it’s totally incomprehensible when the listener is not under the influence of heavy drink.

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve belatedly engaged Mitchell in an email give and take, and hope that you find the results interesting and worth the wait.

Transterrestrial: I remember back in the olden days, when Pioneer Rocketplane was founded, based on your concept of taking off with empty liquid oxygen tanks, refueling (or reoxidizing, if that’s a word) the vehicle in the air, and then flying into space from there. The market was the vast arrays of LEO comsats that were going to make it dark at noon.

The latest plan that I see is a modified bizjet for suborbital tourism, and it seems to be moving forward with some amount of funding. Can you describe how the company, and your thinking, have evolved to get from there to here, and what are the current prospects for fully funding it, if it isn’t already?

Burnside Clapp: Looking back over the last decade, it’s pretty clear that we were all mesmerized by the prospect of the Teledesic Winter. Especially early on, when they were talking about nearly 1000 satellites, it was hard not to get excited about the opportunity. Even when the Teledesic constellation is set aside, there was still, at least theoretically, ample market to support a Kistler, Kelly, Rotary and a Rocketplane, in the style to which we’d dearly love to become accustomed.

What we all missed, it seems to me, was something that Rachel Villain, an analyst at Euroconsult, pointed out to me about LEO comsats. Let’s say you’re running such a constellation. You have to develop satellites, with a bus from scratch most likely, secure spectrum globally in a new band most likely, enter a consumer business in dozens of countries.. you have collossal, and very uncertain costs in your whole program. For a GEO comsat program, launch is maybe 50% of your program costs. For LEO constellations, it might be as much as 15% – and it’s the only part of the whole business plan for one of these operations that has low uncertainty. In a business like that, even free launches might not be an acceptable incentive to convince the customer to take a risk on you.

So when the wheels came off the LEO comsat segment, we were all wondering what to do. The trend at Rocketplane has been over time to get less and less grandiose in our ambitions. The initial design, back when I was in the military, was a single spacecraft all the way to orbit using Aerial Propellant Transfer, called Black Horse. When I left the Air Force, and tried to get something going commercially, the program became less ambitious–a two-stage-to-orbit system with a reusable first stage, also employing Aerial Propellant Transfer (sorry for the terminology hairsplitting, but fuel and oxidizer are different stuff, and I think it behooves would-be rocketeers to be disciplined about what they mean). Later, as the market diminished, so did the vehicle performance. We developed an even smaller vehicle based on no propellant transfer at all, the purpose of which would be to fly to over 328,000 feet and return safely.

This latter vehicle, more or less, is what we’re currently developing. The latest angle, which simplifies much of the design but also introduces complications, is to recycle as much as possible from the 20 series Learjets. So over the last decade, we’ve gone from single-stage-to-space rocketplanes to X-prize class vehicles, getting slower, but more developable, at every step. The irony is that the primary structure and rocket technology, indeed, everything on this vehicle except for perhaps the flight control computer, was in use before I was born (today is my 42nd birthday).

Transterrestrial: Happy birthday. Would that I were such a sprout.

Burnside Clapp: It seems ironic to me that at age 42 I am probably still below the median age in aerospace.

Transterrestrial: Both ironic and depressing. Hopefully that will change if we can make the business more cutting edge and exciting to younger people.

Burnside Clapp: In any event, our strategy appears to have been effective. I’ve not heard what if anything is going on at Kelly, but Kistler is in Chapter 11 and Rotary is gone. It seems that the companies that are still active are the ones that are more or less pursuing this market. The other aspect to effectiveness, of course, is financing. In January of this year, we received a tax credit from the state of Oklahoma. The way this works is that to qualify for such a credit, the company has to have an assessed value of $10M, a contribution of facilities or the equivalent from a locality within Oklahoma, and a certification from the state’s Department of Commerce that, basically, there’s enough job creation in the deal to make it a good bargain for the state of Oklahoma. Subsequently, tax credit investments in such a qualified company of up to $30M dollars can be issued by the state. This was done in January, and we sold the tax credit, at some discount, in the first half of the year to entities within Oklahoma that have tax liability there.

As of now, we have over twenty people working in our Oklahoma office (it’s right at the airport, just north of the hotel there) full time, and we’re definitely hiring. It appears that, although we are definitely interested in further financing options and the financial team is by no means sitting idle, that we’re going to be flying our first vehicle in late 2006. By 2007 we should be in revenue service.

Transterrestrial: That’s great news, but lest I be accused of tossing softballs, wouldn’t a strategy that realized the realities of the marketplace much sooner have been more effective? Do you consider yourself a leader in the new suborbital tourism industry, in the context of Rutan, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and XCOR?

Burnside Clapp: I’m not sure the realities of the marketplace were all that real before the current moment. Short of finding a patron, as Rutan and Blue Origin have done, we’ve been doing largely what XCOR has been doing, in the sense of subsisting off of smallish private investment and government contracts, to the extent that the latter don’t dilute our focus too terribly. XCOR and Rocketplane have emphasized different areas in business development, but the strategy has been fairly similar. And as yet, the marketplace for space tourism is still very much a developing thing.

Do we consider ourselves a leader in the new suborbital tourism industry? It’s really not for us to say. We’re doing quality work with enough money to see it through to a flight vehicle, and the market will judge if that was the right thing to do or not. I can’t imagine that we’d do anything all that differently if we knew absolutely everything that was going on at Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic, nor would we change our design or our schedule if the other enterprises ceased to exist overnight. In a sense, though, they provide a valuable service to us–validation that there’s a market worth entering.

Transterrestrial: OK, we’ve talked about Christmases past and present. How about the ghost of Christmas future? What can you tell us about the company plans, and what you see as the development path to orbit, both in a technical and a market sense?

Burnside Clapp: I believe this is where I say “Bah. Humbug,” or “Chanukah Shalom” or something. But I like the metaphor, and Dickens, so I’ll go with it.

We created a vision statement that says, basically, that our vision is to make space travel as safe and commonplace as air travel–and by space travel we mean travel via space from place to place on the Earth’s surface. I think the rocket transports in Heinlein’s Friday, If This Goes On…, or Between Planets represent the sort of future I’d like to see. Once you’ve managed horizontal-takeoff, horizontal-landing space transports, and then improved them to the extent that they can fly from continent to continent, with sufficient safety to permit the public to travel, then I think you’ve accomplished something significant. A transcontinental space transport is about half the performance, approximately, of an orbital vehicle. You could say that developing such a vehicle puts you “A quarter of the way to anywhere”, which I would regard as enormous progress.

Transterrestrial: Half the performance in what sense? Delta V? Energy? Do you see this as a single-stage vehicle? Are you still considering aerial reoxidizing?

Burnside Clapp: It’s between half the delta-V and half the energy, very approximately. Much depends on how much aerodynamic glide range extension you can eke out during the reentry phase. Aerial propellant transfer remains a trick in the bag, with either propellant, potentially.

Transterrestrial: Oklahoma hasn’t previously been known as a hotbed of space activity, but the state seems to be making a concerted effort to change that, and we now have you and TGV Rockets (and others) based there. How is that working out, and is it a useful model for other states?

Burnside Clapp: Oklahoma would surprise you in a lot of ways. We’ve got amazing depth in just the sort of aerospace engineering we need–the second-tier supplier-level stuff. We’ve been able to attract good people, although we’re definitely still hiring. I think the financing we were able to access made all the difference in making our decision to locate there, but I’m very glad we did. And housing is amazingly affordable. I purchased a second house, on the shore of a large lake, and wrote a check off my home equity line out here [in California]. Four bedrooms and 2200 square feet for $100K in a decent area is not hard to work out at all. So you can have a pretty decent quality of life there, work with great people, and get important work done…there’s nothing not to like, really.

Transterrestrial: Any concerns about living in Tornado Alley? Do you anticipate this location as a launch site (or should I say, spaceport), or just vehicle development?

Burnside Clapp: We’re committed to using the 13,000-foot runway and associated facilities at Burns Flat, Oklahoma. This place was a former bomber base, I believe, and sits between Elk City and Weatherford. While you might think of this as the corner of No and Where, it’s a pretty decent place to fly. The weather is pleasant for the most part, and this part of Oklahoma is fairly sparsely populated, which simplifies spaceflight operations.

As for tornadoes, well, pick your disaster. Florida has hurricanes, California has earthquakes, Hawaii has tsunamis, no place is perfect.

[Editor's note: this portion of the interview occurred on December 24th of last year, a day or so before the recent devastating tsunami in south Asia, of which we were both, obviously, unaware at the time.]

Transterrestrial: What are the prospects for them getting a site license from AST, like Mojave? Do they have funding for the needed environmental impact analysis?

Burnside Clapp: The prospects for a site license are pretty good. One of the reasons for this is that OSIDA, the Oklahoma Space Industrial Development Authority, is investing in the necessary paperwork and certification stuff to keep AST happy. The facility, and Burns Flat, Oklahoma, is outstanding… there’s a 13,000-foot-plus hard-surface runway, hangars and everything you need for an aviation development program, surprisingly consistent and workable weather–I’m very glad that Oklahoma stood up and made us take a good look at what they had to offer.

Transterrestrial: Along the lines of regulation, are you happy with the outcome of the legislation this year? Most peoples’ understanding (to the degree that they paid any attention to it at all) was that it was held up largely due to concerns on the part of Rocketplane that the suborbital definition would exclude your vehicle, because you have a hybrid concept (both airbreathing and rocket). Is the current regulatory situation satisfactory to you now, or are you with Burt Rutan, who wants to be regulated by AVR? Or something else entirely?

Burnside Clapp: My personal views and my corporate position are at some odds. Personally, I agree with Rutan pretty much down the line–but the field has to be level for everyone. There shouldn’t be a situation that permits one team to make a design choice that allows them to claim some other set of rules to fly under if their vehicles are fundamentally the same. For example, by trajectory shaping, it would be possible for Rocketplane to evade the new definition in the current legislation. In other words, the regulatory category of the vehicle would depend, real time, on pilot decisions. That seems unreasonable.

At the same time, there was a rush to get the bill passed last year that had language in it that excluded the Rocketplane design a priori. While I might prefer AVR-type regulation myself, I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where my regulatory burden was higher than anyone with a similar vehicle because we had designed a safer aircraft–that is, one whose main propulsion system wasn’t flight critical. While I’m mindful of the idea that sticking a trivial rocket on an airplane and then pretending you’re an RLV might provide an end run around aviation safety rules, I don’t see that as anything but a strawman argument. We wanted a definition that did not exclude our vehicle simply because it had an additional, redundant, propulsion system. We had some help from Sen. Inhofe and his people in that regard, and we’re grateful that the bill that the Congress finally passed is one that seems to satisfy all parties.

But what I really think about all of this is as follows, and is derived from a USENET post of a bit over a year ago.

I am firmly of the opinion that shopping around for the most convenient set of rules is a recipe for investment-dampening confusion. I also think that there’s a lot of good on both sides of the argument about who regulates what.

For me, the bright-line test is this: If it is under the sole control of a pilot, physically present aboard the vehicle, who is able to take corrective action at all phases of flight if something breaks, then it is an aircraft, regardless of whether the lift comes from aerodynamic forces, propulsive forces, inertial forces, buoyant forces, or supernatural forces. I think the same is true of control and it’s not consequently helpful to draw a distinction between “needs reaction control” and “needs aerodynamic control.” All such vehicles should be certificated by AVR, in a category appropriate to their design.

Let me stress, by the way, that control is not used here to mean “real-time control-loop closure”, or hand flying. Some designs just don’t permit that. It does, however, mean that there ought to be actions the pilot can take at every instant of the trajectory to assure vehicle and public safety. Systems that contain a person with a stick that isn’t hooked up to anything don’t count. Systems that have unabortable flight phases where the crew’s only recourse is to make their peace with their Maker don’t count. An occupant is not a pilot.

If the jettison of (unpiloted) stages is contemplated, then it becomes an AST responsibility. Calculating things like expected casualties and so on becomes an appropriate thing to do in those circumstances. I think this is true for follow-on space launch systems like the ones we’re working on at Rocketplane that imagine very high-speed over-water release of upper stages. There’s no chance such a stage could survive intact to the ground, and there’s precedent for “no range safety” package for Pegasus Stage III, which releases at a similar flight condition to what we are imagining, but I think we are obliged to prove that to a competent regulator, and that’s AST.

Remotely operated vehicles, and I’m thinking in particular of Kistler here, have an interesting problem under these sets of rules. Aviators necessarily become a little apprehensive at the “who’s flying this thing?” concerns of remotely operated vehicles. It isn’t common to see vehicles without occupants in normal airspace whatever type of vehicle they are, and in this case I think you’re essentially tackling the UAV problem. That means that the fidelity and security of your communications link is a safety-of-flight item. That in turn means that if it fails you are flying an unpiloted, possibly internally guided, space vehicle, and that means that you are back in AST’s area of responsibility. Again, if the system has an architecture choice that could lead to an AST-like vehicle configuration, then it’s reasonable to expect them to sign off on what you’re doing.

Burt Rutan has an (I believe) unpublished e-mail running around describing in some detail what it was like working with AST during the development process of Spaceship One, and it wasn’t a lot of fun for him and his team. On the other hand, for all their achievements, Burt has never certificated an aircraft for passenger travel with AVR.

Clearly this is an issue that needs a lot of attention, and I’m hopeful that the new legislation is a step in the right direction. But let’s also be clear that the number of passengers flown on AST-certified vehicles so far is zero, and that it is a challenge for everyone in the community to contemplate how this is going to work in practice. My concern about AST certification is mostly to do with the uncertainty, which is, even after the legislation, significant.

Transterrestrial: I’m asking you these questions at the end of the year 2004. I think that when people look back on the history of this crazy business, decades from now, they’ll see this past year as an extremely significant one in the development of the industry. Do you agree, and how optimistic are you about the future for it (and Rocketplane as well), particularly relative to some times in the past (and even the recent past)?

Burnside Clapp: Well, I suppose I agree. Previously, I thought 2000 was the pivotal year–the one where there was a great contest for survival among the previous group of startups, the year space tourism began to become perceived as a realistic market…I used to say it was 2000: A Space Iliad. But 2004 will be looked back on as pivotal as well, what with Rutan’s X-Prize effort, SpaceX, and the other things that are going on.

Rocketplane is going to be around, I think, if anyone is. Sometimes I become concerned that we’re all a little ahead of our time–that it just isn’t time yet to build the sorts of machines we want to build. But the validation of having so many other smart and disciplined people working on the same problems we are reassures me. Rivals are good–they remind you that your goals are worth pursuing.

Thirty years from now, I expect that suborbital travel is going to be commonplace and that many thousands of people will visit LEO on a routine basis. From the year 2035, we should be arguing over the prospects for Lunar Tourism, if indeed we’re not having that argument from the bar at the time share facility where we’ve all purchased our vacation condos on the moon.

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