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The unsung rocketeers

Thierry Boccon-Gibod / Virgin Galactic
With SpaceShipTwo in the background, aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan (second from

left) chats with design team leaders Luke Colby, Jim Tighe and Matt Stinemetze.

When it comes to visions of future spaceships, Virgin Galactic certainly knows how to pour on the glitz – as evidenced by last week’s gossip-worthy unveiling of the design for the SpaceShipTwo launch system. But there’s a lot of hard work to be done behind the scenes, and far more people are involved in the effort besides British billionaire Richard Branson and aerospace guru Burt Rutan, the stars of last week’s show. Some of the unsung rocketeers in the commercial space race are just now getting their shot at the spotlight - while others stay out of the spotlight entirely.

Rutan himself tried to shift the spotlight when he brought up five of SpaceShipTwo's top designers, who had flown in for the New York unveiling from Rutan's home base at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.

"I am not a sole designer - in fact, I have not been well lately," Rutan told the audience. "These guys here are the ones who are running our design program, our development program."

The five next-generation engineers on the stage were:

  • Matt Stinemetze, project engineer at Scaled Composites.
  • Bob Morgan, design team leader developing the launch airplane.
  • Jim Tighe, project engineer for the spaceship, and chief aerodynamicist at Scaled.
  • Pete Siebold, specializing in avionics and development of the SpaceShipTwo simulator.
  • Luke Colby, designer for rocket propulsion.

"Burt has this unique knack to pull together the best designers on the planet, and drag them out to the middle of nowhere with nothing to do but design really cool spaceships," Stinemetze joked.

Stinemetze and Tighe were actually the first ones to lay out the main features of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership. "Expect in the future to see a fleet of these," Tighe told reporters. 

Afterward, I asked Rutan via e-mail about the reference to the team - as well as the reference to his health. Was there any reason to think he would have to step out of his starring role? Here's his reply:

"For a long time the press has always given me sole credit for design of the 39 aircraft developed by my two companies. While the creative aerodynamic content has been mine for most of them, the current crop of new stuff is done by a large team of engineers. I brought the top five of them for the SS2 program to the press conference, introduced them and their roles in the program and had them discuss the detailed design rationale for the two ships on the Virgin team.

"The goal was to give them the deserved credit for design of these aircraft/spaceships. However, in all the stories I have read about the unveil press event, every writer has ignored what he saw and gives me credit for the designs. I would have thought that at least a few of them were awake?

"I have not been mute about the health problems I have had since early September, but I would not be happy to see stories about it in the press. Since there are always flaws in the stuff published I would not welcome having to correct personal info that is not relevant to our space story. A better place for that would be in a biography book."

Just as Rutan isn't the sole designer on the SpaceShipTwo team, SpaceShipTwo is not the sole entrant in the private-sector space race - though I admit that might have been hard to figure out on the basis of last week's news reports, including mine.

Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic as the final-frontier wing of his Virgin empire back in 1999, has a unique knack for generating consumer buzz about his ventures, and that has brought in an estimated $30 million in deposits for future flights. The other players may be taking a lower profile - but they're just as serious about keeping up with Branson's pace in what most of them think will be a marathon with more than one winner. Here's a sampling that hits upon the variations in business strategies:

Inch by inch, step by step

XCOR Aerospace is Rutan's lesser-known aerospace neighbor in Mojave, although the company builds up a little more celebrity every time it wins a rocket contract or gets featured in a magazine. Company spokesman Doug Graham compares Rutan to a space-age Christopher Columbus, who is able to attract funding from some of the deepest pockets of the day. In a sense, Richard Branson and SpaceShipOne's backer, software billionaire Paul Allen, play the same roles that Ferdinand and Isabella filled back in 1492.

"Queen Isabella hasn't shown up for us, so we're doing it the hard way," Graham said. "We've had to get it one jewel at a time."

Those jewels have been earned for developing the flying machines for the Rocket Racing League as well as for doing rocket-engine work for NASA, DARPA and the U.S. Air Force. In addition to paying the rent, such projects advance XCOR's efforts to create a rocket-powered, two-seat suborbital space plane

XCOR has been mum about when it hopes to get that plane off the ground and into space, and it seems unlikely that the two-seater will be ready before SpaceShipTwo's eight-seater. But Graham said some things are more important than being first to market. "It would be great to be the first to enter, but you want to be the first to enter with the right vehicle," he said.

Giving NASA a lift

Several spaceship companies are banking on NASA to give them a boost, through a demonstration program known as the Commercial Orbital Transportation System, or COTS, as well as future payload deals for the international space station.

California-based SpaceX is already in the midst of a NASA-supported development program for its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo/crew capsule. Four other companies - Andrews Space, Orbital Sciences, PlanetSpace and Spacehab - are heading up teams looking for more NASA funding. What's more, PlanetSpace and t/Space, as well as Spacehab, Constellation Services International and SpaceDev, are already getting advice from NASA (but no money) on spaceship development.

The key milestones to come include NASA's Feb. 7 decision on the next round of funding, as well as SpaceX demonstration flights planned this year for the Falcon 9 as well as its smaller-scale Falcon 1 rocket. Just this month, SpaceX conducted its first multi-engine firing test for the Falcon 9.

If you build it, they will come

Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace and Washington-based Blue Origin are both funded by billionaires (hotel magnate Robert Bigelow and founder Jeff Bezos, respectively), and they both tend to play their cards a bit closer to the vest.

Bigelow is riding on a wave of two high-profile successes for its inflatable orbital space modules, and is reportedly looking for an affordable launch vehicle as it prepares to put up the first private-sector space station capable of accommodating visitors.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, trumpeted a successful test flight a year ago but has since reverted to its secretive ways. By my tally, there were at least three opportunities for flight testing over the past year, based on Federal Aviation Administration records, and in November Bezos said a new test rocketship was being built. The reports emanating from Blue Origin's spaceport in Texas hint that the launch facilities there are also in the midst of an upgrade - and that a new round of tests is expected in the coming months.

Spaceflight sponsors

Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Global recently unveiled its own XP spaceship design, and chief executive officer George French noted Virgin Galactic's new look with special interest.

"If you look at their new design, you'll see three Rocketplanes," he told me today. Of course, Rocketplane's hybrid jet-rocketship doesn't sport SpaceShipTwo's movable fins - which Rutan considers the key to the plane's eventual success - but French voiced confidence that his six-seat plane will hold its own.

While Virgin Galactic has been courting customers well-heeled enough to pay $200,000 for a flight to the edge of space, Rocketplane has been focusing on corporate sponsors. One of the latest to sponsor a future free suborbital spaceflight is the Nestle candy company, which is promoting its KitKat bar in France. (Here's a report about the contest - in French, of course.)

"Virgin's a marketing machine, and we can't compete with them on public PR, but when the designs go head to head, and corporations do due diligence, they pick us," French said.

Rocketplane has been aiming to get its XP craft into operation by the end of 2010, although French told me that date is squishy. "Everybody who's out there has found out that it's taking longer than they thought," he said.

But wait ... there's more

So far, the two-year rule appears to be holding - that is, the first flights are two years away, no matter who you're talking about. Next year, they still may be two years away. But at least some players in the space game will continue moving ahead, often blending strategies in the process.

For example, Armadillo Aerospace's John Carmack is paying his own way as he and his team work on modular rocketships, but he also wants to get in on NASA prizes, suborbital joyrides, military contracts and corporate deals down the road.

Space Adventures is sending high-rolling travelers on orbital trips, and the company is even selling a backup seat for $3 million. (As expected, Australian entrepreneur Nik Halik was named today as backup for space-bound game guru Richard Garriott.) At the same time, Space Adventures is making deals for lower-rolling suborbital giveaways.

Zero Gravity Corp. is flying private passengers on weightless airplane flights, but is also doing corporate sponsorships and giving NASA a zero-G lift. Then there's the Google Lunar X Prize, which is attracting a new set of players hoping to send a robot to the moon and win $20 million or more. (Word is that more X Prize competitors may surface next month.)

I'm sure I've left off some worthy players, and I apologize in advance for that. For a good overview of the entire field, check out our private-sector space archive as well as our clickable survey of the "New Space Landscape."

Elsewhere on the Web, you can visit Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News, Jeff Foust's Personal Spaceflight, Michael Belfiore's Dispatches from the Final Frontier and Rob Coppinger's Hyperbola.  And as always, feel free to add your reflections on the rocketeers - sung or unsung - as comments below.