A decade after its founding, TGV Rockets of Norman, Okla., has moved from the back-of-the-napkin stage to serious design work, but company officials acknowledge they still have a long way to go before fielding the reusable launch vehicle of their ambitions.

TGV's focus is on a baseline vehicle concept known as the Michelle B, or Modular Incremental Compact High Energy Low-cost Launch Example. Pat Bahn, TGV's chief executive officer, describes it as a clean-sheet design that nevertheless draws upon lessons that were learned from the Delta Clipper Experimental, or DC-X program, an experimental reusable rocket designed for vertical takeoffs and landings. The program, which culminated with several tests of an advanced version known as the DC-XA, ran from 1993-1996. The program was funded jointly by NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.

"We're just a little grayer and a little balder ? a little more experienced," Bahn said, noting that the company's first five years were capitalized by personal credit cards.

"American Express was our biggest investor in the company; they just don't know it yet," Bahn told Space News in an April 16 telephone interview that also included Earl Renaud, TGV's chief operating officer.

The Michelle B has moved from an early cocktail napkin cartoon to preliminary design of the spacecraft, its avionics and control and landing gear in addition to engine work and thermal protection system prototyping. "We're about $15 million into a $75 million development and test program," explained Renaud, and a non-trivial effort remains to bring the vehicle to flight.

But the company also declines to disclose how far along any of that work is or identify its customers or those otherwise paying for some of that work. "It is technology research and development primarily for Department of Defense customers," he said, although the group's Web site lists as "client history" such organizations as the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the Naval Center for Space Technology.

According to TGV's Web site, the company received an initial design study contract for a reusable launch vehicle from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, in 2003 and has continued to expand that work.

Tactical imaging and reconnaissance

The market envisioned for TGV's suborbital Michelle B is on-demand tactical imaging and tactical reconnaissance. "The punch line we've used in talking to the Department of the Defense is that this would be a one-star general officer's personal satellite ? to revolutionize tactical imagery," Bahn said.

While suborbital science and microgravity hardware testing are interesting markets, "they are not a killer application," Renaud said.

TGV is marketing Michelle B as a reusable, quick-turnaround suborbital rocket able to launch an optical package to an altitude of 100 kilometers providing quick-look, low-cost imagery for both military and commercial applications.

"All of a sudden we are wildly competing with satellite-based imagery, without any latency or without any of the high-fixed upfront costs," Renaud said. "This will transform everything."

The company has been ground testing its TGV-RT30 reusable throttleable rocket engine. A series of tests were carried out in mid-2007 at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi under a reimbursable Space Act Agreement.

"We were the first engine to fire at the stand after Hurricane Katrina," Bahn said. "It was a big morale boost for them as well as us."

Bahn said the data from those tests — 20 short-duration engine runs — "was stellar, beautiful and clean and cost-effective ? and we're trying to get back on the stand there right now."

The RT30 uses JP-8 jet fuel and liquid oxygen to churn out 30,000 pounds of thrust, a figure TGV officials believe to be the ideal powerplant for operationally responsive spacelift.

TGV, Bahn said, also is taking on a role as the exclusive agent in the United States for test, development and marketing to the U.S. government of the CHASE-10, a South Korean methane-liquid oxygen rocket engine. The 22,000 pound thrust motor was developed by the Korea-based C&Space Inc.

Over the past few years, the employment level at the company has bounced between 12 to 30 individuals, depending on work load. And over those years, TGV has undertaken more technology development than originally envisioned by company officials, Renaud said.

"We opened the doors at TGV to build a vehicle," Renaud said, but over the years the company also has migrated to building technological expertise in-house. That has led to the firm having more engineering research, development and services than first anticipated, he said.

Nevertheless, the company ultimately sees its future in developing hardware rather than just providing engineering services. Renaud said TGV wants to be perceived by industry and government "as a viable, low-cost, agile alternative to the established larger aerospace companies."

For its work-force needs, TGV draws in part from a large pool of Oklahoma talent tied to nearby Tinker Air Force Base, a major maintenance, repair and overhaul site that relies on aerospace-qualified machine shops, heat treating specialists, metal dealers and welders.

As for the longevity of TGV, there's no secret at work, Renaud said. The firm's approach is to convince people that they have a decent technical idea, obtain risk reduction dollars, quietly carry out necessary research and development, and then tell people about successes.

Given the 10 years to sustain themselves as a small entrepreneurial space company, Bahn said his advice for other private space ventures is straightforward, even if it is somewhat tongue in cheek: "The principal lesson for anyone who wants to be a space entrepreneur is that revenues greater than expenses is a really good idea."

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