TGV Gets Serious with Suborbital Reusable Rocket Design

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

TGV's focus is on abaseline vehicle concept known as the Michelle B, or Modular IncrementalCompact High Energy Low-cost Launch Example. Pat Bahn, TGV's chief executiveofficer, describes it as a clean-sheet design that nevertheless draws uponlessons that were learned from the DeltaClipper Experimental, or DC-X program, an experimental reusable rocketdesigned for vertical takeoffs and landings. The program, which culminated withseveral 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 littlegrayer and a little balder ? a little more experienced," Bahn said, notingthat the company's first five years were capitalized by personal credit cards.

"American Expresswas 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 EarlRenaud, TGV's chief operating officer.

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

But the company alsodeclines to disclose how far along any of that work is or identify itscustomers or those otherwise paying for some of that work. "It istechnology research and development primarily for Department of Defensecustomers," he said, although the group's Web site lists as "clienthistory" such organizations as the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the Naval Center for Space Technology.

According to TGV's Website, the company received an initial design study contract for a reusablelaunch vehicle from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, in 2003 andhas continued to expand that work.

Tactical imaging andreconnaissance

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

While suborbital scienceand microgravity hardware testing are interesting markets, "they are not akiller application," Renaud said.

TGV is marketing MichelleB as a reusable, quick-turnaround suborbital rocket able to launch an opticalpackage to an altitude of 100 kilometers providing quick-look, low-cost imageryfor both military and commercial applications.

"All of a sudden weare wildly competing with satellite-based imagery, without any latency orwithout any of the high-fixed upfront costs," Renaud said. "This willtransform everything."

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

"We were the firstengine 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 fromthose tests — 20 short-duration engine runs — "was stellar, beautiful andclean and cost-effective ? and we're trying to get back on the stand thereright now."

The RT30 uses JP-8 jetfuel and liquid oxygen to churn out 30,000 pounds of thrust, a figure TGVofficials believe to be the ideal powerplant for operationally responsivespacelift.

TGV, Bahn said, also istaking 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 SouthKorean methane-liquid oxygen rocket engine. The 22,000 pound thrust motor wasdeveloped 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 moretechnology development than originally envisioned by company officials, Renaudsaid.

"We opened the doorsat TGV to build a vehicle," Renaud said, but over the years the companyalso has migrated to building technological expertise in-house. That has led tothe firm having more engineering research, development and services than firstanticipated, he said.

Nevertheless, the companyultimately sees its future in developing hardware rather than just providingengineering services. Renaud said TGV wants to be perceived by industry andgovernment "as a viable, low-cost, agile alternative to the establishedlarger aerospace companies."

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

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

Given the10 years to sustain themselves as a small entrepreneurial space company, Bahnsaid his advice for other private space ventures is straightforward, even if itis somewhat tongue in cheek: "The principal lesson for anyone who wants tobe a space entrepreneur is that revenues greater than expenses is a really goodidea."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.