Rocketplane’s XP, a suborbital tourism vehicle meant to take off from the Oklahoma Spaceport in Burns Flat, is in a funding free fall, according to the project’s former chief engineer.
David Urie, who joined in 2004 as chief engineer, said funding for the craft was diverted to Rocketplane’s acquisition of Kistler Aerospace and the development of its orbital K-1 spacecraft.
Although Rocketplane Chief Executive Officer Randy Brinkley told Aviation Week & Space Technology the suborbital subsidiary Rocketplane Global could rehire Urie “in a month or so” with re-established funding, the laid-off engineer said he’d “heard nothing about it.”
“I left in May and the separation was complete,” Urie said. “They will just have to rebuild the team and get back to work on it. The company they put together in 2004 is pretty much gone now.”
Urie said the funds being used to build the Rocketplane XP, a converted Learjet fitted with a delta wing and a rocket engine, were funneled into Rocketplane’s acquisition of Kistler.
“We were making good progress. Essentially, in early 2006 we started diverting funds to Kistler and that began to slow down the XP,” Urie said.
Rocketplane officials said the XP is on hold because the company is concentrating on acquiring $500 million to qualify for NASA’s funds through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.
The orbital subsidiary, Rocketplane Kistler, was awarded a $200 million NASA contract last year to build a rocket capable of transporting cargo to and from the International Space Station, but failed to meet a funding deadline for NASA in May and has reworked the agreement to continue that project.
In 2003, the state of Oklahoma awarded Rocketplane an $18 million tax credit to help build a suborbital tourism ship. The company gradually pushed back the rollout to 2009.
“It’s not cancelled by any means. We have a small team left there of excellent people. The design is doing very well,” Urie said. “It needs to be funded.”
Urie said it would be difficult to reassemble the craft’s original designers, who along with him are searching for new jobs. Robert Seto, Rocketplane’s chief of staff, recently left to become program manager for the Ball Aerospace Corp.
Rocketplane officials did not return calls from Oklahoma Gazette. “Ben Fenwick and Scott Cooper
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