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Space racers set sights on orbital frontier

Now that the SpaceShipOne team has won the $10 million X Prize, some of their competitors — including their neighbors — are turning their attention to orbital spaceships.
Rod and Randa Milliron of Interorbital Systems stand at the entry to their hangar at the Mojave Airport in Mojave, Calif. The Millirons had been working on a suborbital rocket for the Ansari X Prize, but now they're focusing on orbital launch vehicles.
Rod and Randa Milliron of Interorbital Systems stand at the entry to their hangar at the Mojave Airport in Mojave, Calif. The Millirons had been working on a suborbital rocket for the Ansari X Prize, but now they're focusing on orbital launch vehicles.Jim Seida / file

It might sound like a space-age case of sour grapes, but Rod and Randa Milliron say they're glad they don't have to think about the $10 million Ansari X Prize anymore. Instead, the founders of Interorbital Systems — Mojave's "other" X Prize team — are back to chasing what they see as the real prize: developing a spaceship that can take tourists into orbit.

"For the last eight years, we've been looking at orbital," Rod Milliron said. "I guess the X Prize was a distraction to suborbital."

The Millirons, whose hangar is just a block or two from the one that houses the prize-winning SpaceShipOne rocket plane at the Mojave Airport, aren't alone in raising their sights: Several other X Prize contenders say they're interested in a new space race to orbit.

On Tuesday, the day after SpaceShipOne's X Prize victory, hotel magnate Robert Bigelow dangled the promise of a $50 million prize for the first team to develop a reusable five-seat orbital spaceship without government funds. The details of the prize program and its funding are still scant, but even the bare-bones announcement got the Millirons' attention; they were among the first to sign up.

"The fact that this orbital prize has come up is really interesting to us," Randa Milliron said.

Stylistic edge
Conversely, the Millirons are one of the more interesting X Prize teams, at least from a stylistic standpoint: They look more like L.A. character actors or producers than rocket engineers — and indeed, they're all of the above.

Rod, for example, had a recurring nonspeaking role as a counterterrorism agent in the background of the ABC series "24" last season (this season, his character is apparently taking the day off). Randa — who has more than a decade of experience as a TV producer, director and teacher — still takes on the occasional Hollywood gig and teaches communications at the University of Phoenix's Southern California campus.

On the engineering side, Rod's resumé boasts more than 24 years of aerospace experience, including stints as a software engineer at Grumman Aerospace and General Dynamics. Randa doesn't have that level of formal training, but at Interorbital she deals with component testing as well as promotion, sales, marketing and regulatory issues.

Back in 1997, the Millirons also developed the propane tank system for the Global Hilton round-the-world balloon attempt, which was mounted unsuccessfully by Dick Rutan, the test-pilot brother of SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan.

Over the past eight years, the Millirons have developed suborbital test rockets and fired them off the coast of California, at first to further their plans for orbital spaceship. Then they decided to chase the $10 million X Prize for suborbital space vehicles. That "distraction" led the Millirons to design a rocket ship called the Solaris X, but the concept couldn't get off the ground in time to beat SpaceShipOne.

Nano and Neptune
Now Interorbital Systems is back on the orbital road. The Millirons' two main projects are the Nano, a rocket that would launch small satellites into space; and the Neptune, a 100-foot-high (30-meter-high) vehicle that would put up to eight people into orbit, either from a sea-launch site or from the Pacific island of Tonga.

Inside the Millirons' Mojave Airport hangar, the Neptune's two-story-high, gunbarrel-gray capsule and a test platform for its guidance system are already taking shape. The guidance rig is to be tested at the airport later this month. Randa Milliron says the U.S. military is interested in the rocket propulsion system they've developed, which uses "environmentally friendly" chemicals that ignite on contact.

An outsider might wonder whether the husband-and-wife team had the right stuff to put humans into orbit. Heck, even insiders wonder: Last month, Dick Rutan told The New Yorker magazine that if aliens were to land on Earth, they'd feel right at home with the Millirons. But Randa said the Mojave Desert tended to provide wider latitude for big dreamers.

"For us, it's normal to live like this," she said.

Rocket envy
They do voice a bit of envy of their famous neighbor, Burt Rutan, and his SpaceShipOne team at Scaled Composites.

"The frustrating thing is the fact that he gets the money," Rod said.

"I wish someone would come along and level the playing field in terms of some cash outlay," Randa added. "Look at what we've done with basically nothing. Think of what we could do with a few million. We would have been in orbit for what it cost to do the suborbital thing."

Scaled Composites spent more than $20 million in investment money from software billionaire Paul Allen to develop SpaceShipOne. The Millirons estimate that it would take $30 million to $38 million to get their Neptune into orbit.

That estimate for developing a new orbital spaceship seems incredibly low to most industry observers. After all, the Chinese have been spending an estimated $2 billion a year on their rudimentary program to put humans in orbit. The Millirons have attracted investors — including software entrepreneur Eric Gullichsen, who also wrote the code for the guidance system. But Interorbital Systems hasn't yet raised even a million dollars, let alone the $30 million.

"Four million would be nice," Randa said. If they could just get the Nano rocket on the market, "that's when people will start throwing money at us," Rod added.

Future final frontiers
Financial issues are shaping the future final frontier for other spaceship builders as well. Space Transport Corp., an X Prize contender headquartered on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, is planning a test launch of its Rubicon 2 rocket in a week or so — but after that, "we need to start looking for larger sources of capital ... and find customers," said co-founder Eric Meier.

If the money is available, Space Transport is "surely" interested in the orbital space prize, Meier told "It's in our long-term objectives to conduct orbital tourism, so given that's the case, it only makes sense to pick up the $50 million on the way if we can," he said.

But not everyone is going after the $50 million: XCOR Aerospace, another Mojave company that is developing a suborbital spaceship, sat out the X Prize and plans to forgo the orbital space race as well.

"It's too much of a leap," Aleta Jackson, one of the company's co-founders, told "The prize is very nice, but where are we going to get the money to do it?"

Weighing the space races
XCOR and Space Transport, along with other rocket teams, may well join a different kind of space race, the X Prize Cup rocket competition due to take place annually in New Mexico beginning in the next year or two.

That rocket festival, modeled after airplane races and NASCAR events, is aimed at pitting suborbital spaceships against each other to see who can reach the highest altitude or go the farthest.

For the Millirons, however, suborbital is so ... last week.

"We think it's kind of nowhere in terms of making money," Randa said. "We think the seven-day flight is preferable to the seven-minute flight."

Statements like that only add to the way-out image that the Millirons are going for.

"We're the most hated rocket team in the world," Randa said, with more of a smile than a sneer. "And you know why? Because we're a threat."