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Rocketplane runs out of gas

Rocketplane Global's XP suborbital craft, shown in this artist's conception from 2007, would have accommodated five passengers and a pilot. Now the concept will never leave the ground.
Rocketplane Global's XP suborbital craft, shown in this artist's conception from 2007, would have accommodated five passengers and a pilot. Now the concept will never leave the ground.Rocketplane

In an alternate universe, Rocketplane would be flying passenger spaceships by now … but in this universe, the company has declared bankruptcy, after receiving millions of dollars in NASA cash and Oklahoma tax credits.

Four years ago, one of Rocketplane's subsidiaries was in line to get more than $200 million from the space agency to develop a K-1 reusable launch vehicle to service the International Space Station. But when the company couldn't put its financing together in time, NASA dropped Rocketplane and allocated the rest of the budgeted money for Orbital Sciences Corp.

Rocketplane Kistler had already been given more than $32 million but didn't have to pay any of that money back to NASA. The company also received nearly $18 million in transferable tax credits from Oklahoma to locate its flight operations at the state's spaceport, a converted Air Force base near Burns Flat. Those credits were transferred years ago to generate capital for the company.

Even after the NASA-backed Kistler project fizzled, another subsidiary called Rocketplane Global kept working on a suborbital rocket-jet hybrid plane that would have lofted paying passengers above the 62-mile (100-kilometer) altitude mark, giving them a taste of weightlessness and a fantastic view in the process for a $250,000 fare. Last year, Rocketplane Global was working on a deal that would have put a space tourist hub in Hawaii. And this April, the company was talking about a potential tourist operation in Florida.

Now the Oklahoma Gazette reports that Rocketplane's owner, George French, has filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy papers in his home state of Wisconsin, covering Rocketplane as well as the Kistler and Global subsidiaries. French is also filing for personal bankruptcy. The documents show assets ranging from $108,000 to $287,000, and liabilities of more than $8 million.

The Chapter 7 bankruptcy process would lead to the liquidation of Rocketplane's assets - and the death of the company's outer-space dreams. "We didn't leave a nickel on the table," the Gazette quotes French as saying. "We did what we said we could do. Unfortunately, we did not complete the program as originally conceived."

Rocketplane's exit still leaves lots of companies in the entrepreneurial space race, including Orbital as well as California-based SpaceX, which notched a successful orbital test flight of its Falcon 9 rocket last month; Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, which are working together on captive-carry tests of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane; XCOR Aerospace, which is building its own suborbital rocket plane; Bigelow Aerospace, which has launched two prototype space modules into orbit; and Blue Origin, the space venture backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems, which shared NASA-backed prizes in last year's Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, are also in the running.

Who'll turn out to be the big winners? Will there be more losers as well? Feel free to handicap the new space race in your comments below.

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