Rocketplane Global Overhauls Suborbital Craft
New suborbital spaceplane design has been unveiled by Rocketplane Global, Inc., featuring more powerful engines and added room for passengers.
Credit: RGI

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. – Rocketplane Global, Inc. (RGI) of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma announced today a facelift for its first XP Spaceplane – transforming it into a more powerful craft that provides a roomier ride for suborbital patrons.

Since 2004, Rocketplane has been building their XP Spaceplane, a four-seat, fighter-sized vehicle powered by two jet engines and a rocket engine.

But things have changed over the last year and a half, said Dave Faulkner, Program Manager of Rocketplane Global. "We've learned quite a bit over that time and realized that we needed to make some changes," he said.

The revised XP Spaceplane design revealed today here at the site of this year's X Prize Cup festivities is a five-passenger, single-pilot craft.

Shipshape features

Faulkner told SPACE.com that both computer modeling and wind tunnel testing have led the firm's design team to reshape their suborbital spaceship.

A key change is that company engineers are going away from a souped-up Learjet concept. "We were changing 95 percent of the Learjet to make it a rocket plane. So it was no longer a Learjet ? it just so happened that we were using a few Learjet parts," Faulkner said.

The vehicle now features a new fuselage design, although, like its predecessor, the body of the spaceplane will be aluminum and utilize titanium leading edges. On the craft's nose, a set of fixed canards have been added for control purposes.

Another alteration can be seen at the spaceplane's tail section – a T-tail instead of a V-tail is to be used, shaving off some weight while realizing added redundancy and extra control.

A beefier landing gear system has also been scoped out, to be provided by Loud Engineering & Manufacturing, a CIRCOR Aerospace company located in Ontario, California.

One major change is use of afterburning J85 engines, with the overall thrust to weight for the spaceplane redesign going up significantly – about 50 percent more thrust, he added.

Rocketplane Global has already put their money down – a still hush-hush amount of cash – and is about to take receipt of 11 of those engines from Magellan Aerospace, a Canadian company.

Flight plan

Here's the flight plan for suborbital customers: The Rocketplane XP would take off from the runway at the Oklahoma Spaceport, scooting into the air just like a conventional business jet. The craft jets itself into climb mode, flying to a little over 40,000 feet. At this point, the spaceship's pilot ignites the craft's powerful rocket engine, pulling up into a nearly vertical climb for soaring into space.

As the vehicle arcs over, all onboard will experience three to four minutes of weightlessness – along with an incredible view that only a small, select group of people have ever seen.

Within minutes, the descent begins. Under the load of several Gs pushing passengers down into their seat, they are on a unique space roller coaster ride. The XP's specially designed thermal protection system transfers away the heat of re-entry, permitting safe, slow travel toward terra firma.

As the Rocketplane XP slows and enters the lower atmosphere, the pilot restarts the jet engines and begins the final leg of the flight back to the spaceport and a conventional runway landing.

For the inside look of the passenger cabin, Rocketplane Global is engaging the talents of Frank Nuovo, a visionary, world-class designer. He is a visionary force behind Vertu, the luxury communications company, and spearheaded Nokia's styling and global industrial design innovations.

Fee-paying flyers will be treated to personal video screens, given the ability to pick views from different cameras on the spaceship. While passengers will be provided a personal DVD of their flight, don't be shy about stuffing your own camera in your flight suit for taking those keepsake images of your own.

Investment dollars

Rocketplane Global is deep in discussion with several investment groups, Faulkner said, "and they are getting serious ? we're progressing very well on that part."

What amount of investment dollars is involved? Faulkner remained tight-lipped, noting that this information is competition sensitive.

"But we need to bring in the final round of investment to take the craft to flight. So that's what we're busy doing," Faulkner said. "I believe that we bring in the investment soon ? we will be in flight test and have revenue operations in 2010."

Initially, the company would start out with two vehicles, forecasting a fleet of five by 2012.

"We're going to fly each vehicle about a little over once a week. If there are no issues with the vehicle, we're going to be able to turn it around in 24-hours," Faulkner explained. "That's the design goal right now ? and I think that's very doable. We want to be a service provider for space transportation."

Recycling the spaceplane to carry the next set of passengers won't require a standing army of thousands, said Chuck Lauer, Rocketplane Global's Vice President of Business Development.

How much will a flight on the Rocketplane XP slap your wallet or cause you to dig deep into your purse? At present, the standard rate after the first 50 Founder Flights is $200,000 per seat. That up front, right seat next to the pilot, is at a premium ticket price of $250,000 – given the wrap-around windows to gaze through, Lauer said.

Degree of difficulty

To get things rolling, quite literally, the current forecast is for a flight test program of 50 flights. "We'll have the vehicle instrumented to the hilt ? making sure that we're not exceeding any limits before going into operation," Faulkner added.

Asked about degree of difficulty in fashioning the suborbital vehicle, Faulkner responded: "I would say it is medium difficulty. It is certainly not easy, but I wouldn't call it hard either. That's because we're not trying to develop new technology. That's one of the philosophies of our company ? to use existing technology and learn from those people that have done it before, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel."

Working on the project are engineers that have gone through the hard knocks of trial and error, Faulkner added. The team includes experts tasked to develop the space shuttle main engine, as well as a rocket designer involved in blasting off Apollo astronauts from the Moon's surface once their moonwalking missions were completed.

To date, a little over 200,000 engineering hours have been spent on the new Rocketplane XP that debuted today, Faulkner said. The company, he continued, is in negotiation with a major airframe manufacturer, but no details as yet.

Going global

Lauer said the intent of Rocketplane Global is just that – pushing a vision that such vehicles could constitute a distributed fleet flying from multiple locations. "Having a site in Asia, Europe ? being able to offer people views of their particular part of the world is part of servicing the customer," he told SPACE.com.

Use of the vehicle to support other types of activity has also been detailed as part of the business strategy, Lauer said.

"We're not basing our business plan on capturing the whole market," Faulkner noted. "I think there's enough room, at least from what we've seen, to have a few players in the market. But I guess we'll see what happens when we get there," he observed.

Faulkner said that the vehicle, with the changes that have been made, "just looks right and it's also relatable to the public out there."

"It is like an airplane that happens to just pop up into space occasionally," Faulkner pointed out. "And it just looks good."

"Looks good, flies good. That still applies, even in space," Lauer concluded.

For more information on Rocketplane Global, go to: http://www.rocketplaneglobal.com