Rocketing toward first flight: Gary Lantz of Rocketplane Limited, Inc

OotC: Where is Rocketplane currently at in the design/build process? Is metal being bent yet?

Lantz: Yes, metal is being bent! We’re planning on having our structural test article wing completed this month and structurally tested in February. We’ve acquired our rocket engine and are currently working with NASA MSFC on testing it along with some other hardware testing.

OotC: What milestones are upcoming in the schedule? When is flight testing currently planned to begin? Commercial ops?

Now that we’re transitioning into detailed design and building hardware, the conceptual designers have already started working on the next generation vehicle.

Lantz: Our most immediate milestone will be the test wing article, it will help validate all of our tools, analysis, and design and allow us to do a final streamlined redesign if needed. We’re also working on refining our control laws and evaluating our handling qualities and developing a hardware in the loop avionics simulator.

Our flight testing is currently scheduled for early 2007 with commercial operations in the summer of 2007.

OotC: Is Rocketplane fully funded through to the commencement of commercial operations? Is the company looking for further investment at this time?

Lantz: I’m not directly involved in the finances, but there are a lot of opportunities to improve the design by building more test articles or multiple vehicles to reduce the cost of all the vehicles and so increase revenues.

Also, now that we’re transitioning into detailed design and building hardware, the conceptual designers have already started working on the next generation vehicle. Some of the work is done under the radar and on extra time, but additional funding will be able to capture the efforts. As a result, I do know that the company is looking for more investment, not to reach the first commercial operation, but for long term growth.

Any other financial questions will have to be directed to George French, our CEO.

OotC: Space enthusiasts like to argue over the degree of traceability between suborbital and orbital launch vehicle designs. How do you, as an aerodynamicist, view the question? Is there much to be learnt from building and flying a suborbital craft that is also applicable to orbital vehicles?

Lantz: I’m glad you asked that question because I’ve had the same discussions. I’ve always been entertained by people that treat sub-orbital like orbital when in reality the requirements are significantly different. I would place more emphasis on the relationship between high-speed military aircraft and sub-orbital than between orbital and sub-orbital.

One valuable difference is whether or not the vehicle is manned and whether or not the vehicle and its operations need to be profitable. The perspective and assumptions of the reader will greatly influence their opinion on this subject.

I would have to say that it depends on future advancements in propulsion. If I were to guess at future development, with the current cost of rocket propulsion, the easiest means of making sub-orbital space travel commercially viable will be the use of a winged vehicle, either airdropped or HTOL.

Final touches on low speed wind tunnel model at the NIAR Machine Shop, Wichita State University – Credit: Rocketplane

As commercial space travel emerges, I suspect we’ll start to see a lot more advancement in propulsion and high temperature materials. Understanding commercial entities and capitalism, the new development will be to make sub-orbital vehicles go higher and further with each generation and competitor, eventually reaching orbit. The development of the technology will be in baby steps from the foundation of sub-orbital to orbital.

Historically, orbital vehicles were developed using military might and ICBMs as their foundation, that’s one of the primary reasons we see more vehicles riding thrust vectors rather than lift vectors to get to orbit.

We as a community need to determine more of a reason than “to just go” or “to explore” … We should pursue relationships with other industries that could benefit from the zero-g environment and build off of them.

Overall, there are a lot of subsystems and operational infrastructure that can be applied to both suborbital and orbital vehicles with today’s technology, but I suspect more time would be spent on establishing the foundation, assumptions, and intentions of the debate than the actual debate itself.

OotC: If Bill Gates were to get bitten badly by the space bug, and gave you half a billion dollars to start Lantz Aerospace (once Rocketplane is up and running, of course), what would you want to build?

Lantz: Although I would love to continue the momentum and develop an orbital vehicle, I believe that there would be more long-term value in investing all of it into propulsion development. The most difficult part of a space vehicle is a safe, reliable, and efficient means of propulsion. I’ve seen a lot of interesting propulsion concepts being developed for aircraft, but it seems that propulsion systems for space vehicles have more or less stagnated.

High speed wind tunnel model installed at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s Advanced Research Facility – Credit: Rocketplane

OotC: What do you think it’s going to take to get from commercial suborbital to orbital spaceflight? Is that something that’s technically within the reach of the community? Financially?

Lantz: The most significant answer is “a reason”. The technology is there, it’s been done, but the reason does not justify the expense. Right now, the community is getting a boost from public support, and the desires of rich adventurers to get a ride to space, to do something that very few get to do. Once the novelty wears off, what else is there?

To the space enthusiasts, it’s still a matter of just going to space; but how many members of the community get as excited as a biologist does when staring down a microscope at a new species of bacteria? We as a community need to determine more of a reason than “to just go” or “to explore”. There are a lot of technologies being developed that show a benefit to space travel, but obviously the technology hasn’t proved its value, or NASA would have a bigger budget! We should pursue relationships with other industries that could benefit from the zero-g environment and build off of them.

OotC: Finally, what are your thoughts about NASA’s current architectural efforts for the return to the Moon? Do you think that can contribute significantly?

Lantz: I’m not sure, to be honest. I’ve heard a lot of good things and bad things from various people. NASA has done things that no one thought was possible, and as a result, I think people have expectations that are too high, and they no longer accept failures. I am afraid that when people reuse technology too much for too long, the next generation of engineers never get the opportunity to learn. We can’t develop new technologies if no one pushes the envelope and creates a need.

I believe the community could contribute significantly by driving the costs down and by helping destroy the big business, big budget mentality. We as a community need to put the entrepreneurial spirit back into the space industry.

Gary has kindly agreed to stop by the Forums, and respond to questions in this Q&A thread, so this is your chance to put some questions to an engineer working at the forefront of Gary is also going to blog here at Out of the Cradle, so check back often to hear his latest thoughts and what he’s up to.
Many thanks Gary, for taking a little time to keep us abrest of all the hard work that you and your colleagues are putting in at Rocketplane.

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