All aboard for space tourists

Bethesda start-up joins race to build reuseable rocket


November 19, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A Maryland start-up company has entered a race that could put the first tourists in space.

TGV-Rockets Inc., of Bethesda, has joined 16 other entrants in the $10 million X-Prize competition to fly the first privately built, manned spaceship to the edge of space and back, and do it again two weeks later.

The contest is designed to spur the development of private technology that will make access to space more affordable to science and industry, and even to wealthy tourists.

Patrick Bahn, TGV-Rockets' chief executive officer, says he's not really after the cash. "We're trying to build a company here," he says.

He wants to build a sort of suborbital bus service -- a cheap ride at least 60 miles straight up and back. His rockets would climb above Earth's atmosphere, but without entering Earth orbit.

Nabbing the X-Prize, Bahn says, would be "the promotional opportunity of the century, of the millennium." It would attract worldwide press attention, and bring in the investors and clients TGV-Rockets needs.

"The primary markets are the atmospheric research community, the space sciences, materials research, military sensor development and weapons testing," Bahn says.

Beyond these, there are drug manufacturers; the funeral industry, which is interested in scattering ashes in space; and Hollywood producers looking for far-out special-effects shots. "They view us as an excellent platform for producing those effects," Bahn says.

And obviously, he says, "we're looking at ideas like space tourism and extreme sports. But those are kind of down the road."

The nonprofit X-Prize Foundation was launched in 1996 by Dr. Peter H. Diamandis -- a 38-year-old physician and entrepreneur with homes in Rockville and in St. Louis. Diamandis and a group of St. Louis business people modeled the prize after those that have driven advances in ballooning and early aviation, including Charles Lindbergh's first solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.

"The X-Prize is really shining a light on the possibilities that are there to go beyond what we're doing," says Betty Flowers, a spokeswoman for NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, the Eastern Shore headquarters for NASA's suborbital launches around the world. "It's the pioneer spirit that seems to be lost everywhere else."

The cash prize has lured competitors from the United States, England, Germany, Russia and Argentina. Some of their designs look like missiles. Others are more like the space shuttle, sleek executive jets or the supersonic Concorde airliner. One looks like a flying saucer.

Diamandis says three or four of the 17 entrants have begun to build and test hardware. He expects a first attempt at the prize in 2002.

For now, TGV-Rockets' rocket remains on the drawing board, and Bahn is answering his own phone. His 2 1/2-year-old company has only the bootstrap cash invested by its managers -- all veterans of the computer and aerospace industries, with backgrounds in military aviation, engineering and business management.

But they think big. TGV's business plan is to capture the existing market for lifting unmanned scientific and commercial payloads to the edge of space, and then to create new demand with dramatically cheaper fares. Bahn believes that he could turn a $300 million market with narrow profits into a $3 billion gold mine.

A stripped-down suborbital flight today might cost $750 per pound, according to officials at Wallops Island. Bahn believes that his reusable rocket can cut that to between $100 and $500 per pound, depending on pricing strategies.

(No tourist fare has been set. But at $500 a pound, a 180-pound person would pay $90,000.)

NASA was looking for big savings in the costs of placing payloads in Earth orbit when it developed the reusable space shuttle in the 1970s. At $10,000 per pound of payload, the shuttle is far costlier than the space agency had hoped.

"But going into orbit is really hard," Bahn says. "We're trying to do a very easy thing." His company's motto: "It's Just Rocket Science."

Bahn likens his idea to the concept of the personal computer 20 years ago. PCs were slow and expensive then, and few people saw why anyone would want one at home.

Suborbital space flights are hugely wasteful, he says. At NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility, "you can stand on the beach, and every two weeks they take $10 million and hurl it into the ocean."

NASA flys 20 to 30 suborbital rockets each year -- a few of them from Wallops. It recovers 70 percent of the payloads, but the spent rockets themselves -- some of them military surplus -- are abandoned at sea or scrapped.

TGV-Rockets' reusable Michelle-B would roar as high as 65 miles. Then, after a few minutes of weightlessness, it would begin to fall, accelerating tail-first into the atmosphere.

As it descended, the rocket would pop a flexible "dive brake" from its sides, like an umbrella pointed toward the ground. The brake would slow the fall from three times the speed of sound to 250 mph.

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