What started out as a dream of rockets in the Oklahoma sky and money flowing from space enthusiasts has finally ended.
George French Jr., owner of Rocketplane Global, decided a mountain of debt and expectations of the same altitude were too much to burden and filed for bankruptcy. He filed the Chapter 7 bankruptcy papers in his home state of Wisconsin, but Oklahomans are suffering the loss.
The original intent was to build a space tourism company in Western Oklahoma that would bring jobs as well as out-of-this-world sightseers. State lawmakers and agencies were so convinced of the plan they handed over nearly $18 million in tax credits to French in 2003 to get the company started.
Years went by, money dried up, commitments went empty and a ship taking humans from the Western Oklahoma plains to the upper regions of the Earth's atmosphere for a quick joy ride never materialized. One version of the ship was found in an Oklahoma City scrap metal yard.
"We didn't leave a nickel on the table," French told Oklahoma Gazette last week. "We did what we said we could do. Unfortunately, we did not complete the program as originally conceived."
The bankruptcy papers were filed June 15, one each for three separate companies " Rocketplane Inc., the parent company, and its subsidiaries Rocketplane Global and Rocketplane Kistler " and a personal bankruptcy filing by French himself. According to the documents, the companies and French ranged in assets of $108,000 to $287,000 to liabilities of more than $8 million. The debtors included vendors Rocketplane had contracted with for services and parts, pending lawsuits and back taxes. Some of the lawsuits are from former employees for breach of contract.
Rocketplane Global was the space tourism company, while Rocketplane Kistler was set up to handle a NASA contract to build a rocket ship for carrying cargo to the International Space Station. The company was awarded the contract in 2006, but NASA pulled the contract a year later due to the company's failure of meeting financial deadlines.
Among the listed assets were four General Electric F-85 jet engines, located at a remanufacturing plant in Ontario, Canada. The engines were valued at $275,000.
The list of debts comprised as many as 22 pages in the filings. They included more than one lawsuit the company is involved in totaling more than $2 million. French listed himself three times, one as a secured claim of $1.4 million, another of nearly $740,000 for deferred salary and a loan of more than $4,000. There were also tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt.
Some of the debts concerned Oklahoma entities, including:
"$1,464 to the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in Oklahoma City
"$2,487 to Thrifty Car Rental
"$33,239 to a Tulsa accounting firm
"$47,981 to Cole and Reed CPA
"$5,901 to the Oklahoma County treasurer's office
"$897 to Oklahoma Office Systems
"$260 to the Oklahoma City Petroleum Club
French and Rocketplane also owe more than $100,000 to a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm.
Among his personal property, which may be sold off to pay some of the debts, are a 28-year-old Rolex watch worth $2,500, a Sea-Doo worth $1,000, $2,500 in stocks and a $280,000 lawsuit judgment in French's favor.
Under Chapter 7 bankruptcy rules, most of the debts can be waived with the exception of taxes owed. The Oklahoma County treasurer's office has placed a claim with the Wisconsin court for payment of the personal business property taxes French owes.
"They have a 2008 business personal tax that is still due to the county," said Tammy Jones with the treasurer's office. "Our taxes will remain through the bankruptcy. They are not, as they call it, a dischargeable debt, so even if they discharge all their other debts and basically don't have to pay them back, the taxes will remain due even after the bankruptcy finishes."
Jones said the taxes are owed on equipment at the Rocketplane office near the Will Rogers World Airport. The company maintained its headquarters there until February 2009.
With Rocketplane gone from the state and on the verge of being eliminated on paper, there appears to be little chance space tourism will launch from Oklahoma. Is this the end of the road for the company?
"No, I wouldn't say that," French said. "My wish is the vehicle someday will fly out of Oklahoma "¦ my hope. It's no longer a wish."
View the bankruptcy documents:
For more OKG coverage on Rocketplane, see story and links here: After $18 million, Rocketplane only launched empty promise for Oklahoma
photo top/Mark Hancock
photo bottom Since 2003, George French Jr. left talked about launching a suborbital spacecraft from Oklahoma.