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Boot camp for rocketeers

Private-sector space efforts are taking on some giant leaps - as evidenced by last week’s launch of the Genesis 2 inflatable module and the progress made by a half-dozen spaceship companies over the past year. But those giant leaps started out years ago with small steps, and this month some of the guiding lights in the spaceflight industry will be offering a "boot camp" for a new crop of ventures that are just entering into the small-step stage.

The boot camp will be a highlight of the Space Frontier Foundation's annual Business Plan Competition, which for years has served as an "American Idol" for final-frontier ventures.

During the competition, entrepreneurs get up and give a five- to eight-minute pitch for their business plan - whether it be for balloon-based, near-space platforms or for orbital sports complexes. Experienced venture capitalists serve as the judges and give out a cash award for the best business plan, but the biggest prize is the notice that well-founded ventures could receive from potential investors.

Among those organizing the July 20 competition, as well as the boot camp on the day before the big event, is Rich Pournelle of California-based XCOR Aerospace. Today the company is working on a methane propulsion contract for NASA, a kerosene-powered rocket plane for the Rocket Racing League and other projects aimed at clearing the way for suborbital spaceflight. But it wasn't all that long ago that XCOR was learning to take its own baby steps.

"XCOR went through this exact same program about six years ago," Pournelle told me today. So did the first incarnation of Rocketplane Kistler, which is now building a suborbital space plane as well as a rocket ship for space station resupply.

Pournelle said XCOR and other players in the commercial space game were helping with the business-plan competition as "our attempt to help our comrades in arms."

This year, the Space Frontier Foundation is charging $200 per contestant, but that entry fee buys a lot of advice during the foundation's festivities in Washington. First, entrepreneurs will go through the daylong boot camp on July 19 under the tutelage of several drill instructors - including NASA's Ken Davidian, Rocket Racing League adviser Bryan Lilley, Jim Asker of Aviation Week & Space Technology and "Space Cynic" Shubber Ali. The trainees will also go through a dress rehearsal for their business pitches.

On the morning of July 20 - the 38th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, by the way - entrepreneurs will take their turns with the judges. Last year, the winner received a $2,000 cash prize, and this year Pournelle is thinking the prize will be at least that much.

Some of the details are still being nailed down, but the deadline for entries is coming up on Monday, so Pournelle wants to get the word out now. "The thing we really need are more business plans, and also any SEC-accredited investors who are interested in coming," he told me.

For more information, check out this Word document with the full rundown of rules and requirements. If you need further specifics, feel free to contact Pournelle at rich@xcor.com. And while you're at it, give a look to the rest of the agenda for the Space Frontier Foundation's NewSpace 2007 conference.