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After $18 million, Rocketplane only launched empty promise for Oklahoma

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e windows are dark and a "For Lease" sign stands outside the office.

"I can't give you an official date that they left. They didn't actually close until they moved out of our building," said Laura Ohrenberg, office manager for The Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots, which sits directly across from the shuttered Rocketplane office. "They moved out of our building in February."

Rocketplane had been subleasing their space from the museum, which owns the buildings and leases property from the airport.

"I saw one of the last employees a couple of weeks ago, and he told me about their last financial investor pulling out of them," Ohrenberg said.

Oklahoma Gazette contacted Rocketplane president George French in Green Bay, Wis., but he would not comment on the record about the company. French became Rocketplane's biggest investor several years ago and eventually took over the company.

So what of the $18 million Oklahoma taxpayers gave the company? No one has answered that question.

FAILURE TO LAUNCH
It all seemed so grand when Rocketplane officials stood next to state lawmakers and announced their base in Oklahoma. Before a crowd at the governor's blue room inside the state Capitol on Jan. 9, 2004, everyone hailed a new dawn for Oklahoma.

"I've had people say this is just a dream, even some might locally say this is a pipe dream," said then-Sen. Gilmer Capps, D-Snyder. "We had a vision. We passed legislation to attract the industry, and now we are getting some results."

French was standing next to Capps and established the first time line of launching space flights from Oklahoma: September of 2006. He also said Rocketplane chose Oklahoma because of the 13,503-feet runway at Burns Flat and the state's commitment to the industry. Before this tax credit legislation was written, Rocketplane executives were already meeting with state officials.

Capps was instrumental in bringing space tourism and Rocketplane to Oklahoma. He told the Gazette back in 2005 that Rocketplane co-founder Chuck Lauer spoke to him about starting his business in the Sooner State.

"Chuck wanted to see if we could pass an incentive in Oklahoma," Capps said.

But even as Rocketplane officials stood with pride, their quest for Oklahoma to achieve suborbital travel was already being questioned. This was a new industry " not just for Oklahoma, but the country. No one had ever attempted such a business, and although the success of American aerospace engineer Burt Rutan's one-time launch of his homemade ship showed the way, this was still a business " one that would require capital as much as ingenuity.

The financial aspect would plague Rocketplane from day one, and even before that. Company officials made it clear they needed the Oklahoma tax credit to get off the ground. The incentive passed in 2001, providing up to $18 million for space tourism. There were certain requirements: A company had to locate its headquarters in Oklahoma, have at least $10 million of equity and qualify for the Oklahoma Quality Jobs Act.

The tax credit expired at 5 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2003. By noon of that day, company officials were still scrambling to meet the requirements. Their plan was to acquire a $30 million bank loan and use that money to qualify for the tax credit. Oklahoma Tax Commission officials anxiously awaited the paperwork, which Rocketplane eventually filed, with just a few minutes before the sunset deadline.

At the time, tax commission general counsel Dawn Cash and tax policy analyst Michael Kaufmann were shocked Rocketplane pulled it off. When the day began, Rocketplane had a meager bank account. By the end of the day, the company had $30 million, with the state kicking in another $18 million.

"Seriously, they got a $30M investment?" Kaufmann wrote in a Dec. 31, 2005, e-mail to Cash.

WARNING SIGNS
The by-the-skin-of-their-teeth measure of getting millions from the state would be a sign of things to come for Rocketplane. Funding problems, design headaches, layoffs and lawsuits became commonplace.

Rocketplane's first concept, a modified Learjet, generated some skepticism in the aerospace community.

Getting the engine built took on troubles of its own. Rocketplane first contracted with Orbitec, but then switched to Rocketdyne. The whole matter was ejected when Rocketdyne wanted a $100 million insurance policy.

In 2006, NASA awarded Rocketplane " which by then had merged with Kistler Aerospace Corp. " a $207 million contract to build a reusable rocket for carrying cargo to the International Space Station. It was seen as a major coup for Rocketplane and one that would inject much-needed cash into the company. It wouldn't be enough.

The NASA contract required Rocketplane to raise private capital, which would trigger NASA sending a certain amount of funds in increments. There were deadlines to meet " financial deadlines Rocketplane never met. A year after awarding Rocketplane the contract, NASA pulled it back.

Chief test pilot and former astronaut John Herrington told the Gazette shortly after NASA pulled out that Rocketplane would still be successful.

"Wait a week, and see what happens," Herrington said in October of 2007. Three months later, Herrington resigned.

The NASA mess caused internal strife at Rocketplane, and vice president and chief engineer David Urie was laid off. He complained funds intended for the space tourism side had been diverted to the NASA project.

Shortly after Urie's departure, the company started conducting layoffs and ordered its subcontractors to halt work. A major partner rescinded its $10 million offer. Company president Randy Brinkley resigned in October 2007.

In the same month, Rocketplane lost the NASA contract, it totally scrapped its space tourism vehicle design and announced a radical new ship. Press reports claimed parts were being built in Guthrie. Parts that had been made for the old version ended up in an OKC scrap metal yard.

Launch dates were moving targets. A 2006 date became 2007, which changed to 2009 and later to 2010. Passenger prices were announced at $100,000 in 2004, and reservations for the "Founders Flight Team" are now running $250,000.

The company eventually stopped giving estimated launch dates entirely.

"I'm saying,

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