Six years ago, a space tourism company announced plans to blast off from a spaceport in western Oklahoma and make spaceflight as common as commercial air travel for those who can afford the $200,000 ticket.
But the company, Rocketplane Global, has yet to get its spacecraft off the ground amid mounting financial problems that have forced staff cutbacks and threatens a commercial agreement between an orbital subsidiary, Rocketplane Kistler, and NASA to service the International Space Station.
In spite of financial and technical challenges, company officials said Rocketplane remains committed to flying passengers on suborbital flights more than 60 miles above the Earth from the Oklahoma Spaceport at the former Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base in Burns Flat.
"We're doing fine," Rocketplane chairman and CEO George French Jr. said Tuesday. "We have not given up and we are heavily committed."
Design drawings and other specifics about the company's Rocketplane XP reusable spacecraft are scheduled to be rolled out at an X Prize event for space exploration and technology scheduled next month in New Mexico.
"We will be making some significant announcements at that time," French said. "We have new investment and we have other things that I can't talk about.
"We're still excited. We think the Oklahoma Spaceport is the best place in the world to do this."
Rocketplane, based in Oklahoma City, was founded in 2001. The Oklahoma Tax Commission named Rocketplane a qualified space transportation provider in July 2004, qualifying the company for almost $18 million in transferrable state tax credits — credits that Rocketplane sold to help finance development of its suborbital spacecraft.
However, financial pressures related to development of a separate launch vehicle to serve as a commercial orbital transportation system for NASA slowed work on the Rocketplane XP spacecraft and the inauguration of suborbital flights from Oklahoma, French said.
"This is rocket science," he said. "Unfortunately, time and circumstance have not worked well for us."
Adding Rocketplane Kistler's orbital capabilities to Rocketplane Global's suborbital space tourism flights made the companies more viable. But earlier this month, NASA sent a failure-to-perform letter to Rocketplane, the first step toward potentially terminating the orbital launch service.
NASA pledged to contribute as much as $207 million to Rocketplane Kistler in August 2006 and laid out a series of milestones, technical and financial, that the company had to meet in order to receive payment.
"Rocketplane Kistler has missed two of the milestones at this point," said NASA spokeswoman Melissa Mathews. No final decision has been made on whether to terminate the contract, Mathews said.
In addition, an Illinois-based advertising agency that promotes space tourism sued Rocketplane last month, alleging that the company breached a contract by not reaching a series of benchmarks — including raising about $500 million — in preparation for conducting its first-sub-orbital flight in 2009.
The lawsuit says the company, Abercrombie & Kent, has spent more than $1 million to promote Rocketplane XP and prepare for ticket sales.
In spite of the difficulties, current and former Rocketplane executives said the company can still be a successful commercial space venture.
"It's purely a matter of getting it funded," said David Urie, former chief technical officer of Rocketplane Kistler who was laid off in May along with other employees.
Urie said Rocketplane's technical plan and business approach are sound. "It's all about the business," he said.
"It's a tough thing to do," said Charles Lauer, vice president of business development at Rocketplane Kistler. "It's challenging technically, but those are manageable. The financing side is much tougher than the technology is."
Although there is no definitive date for Rocketplane's first launch, officials at the Oklahoma Spaceport are still confident. The spacecraft will take off and land like a conventional airplane but reach heights of over 300,000 feet.
"We all want to have had it happen yesterday," said Bill Khourie, executive director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority in Burns Flat. "Changes may be made that may bring about a delay."
No one has flown a suborbital vehicle since aerospace designer Burt Rutan won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in October 2004 by sending his SpaceShipOne rocket plane to the edge of space twice in five days.
"It's quite a challenge," Khourie said. "But they're moving ahead. The Rocketplane program is still alive and well."