Rocketplane CEO Confident in Tech, the Financial Markets….Not So Much

Expressing confidence in the design and technology for his company’s suborbital tourism vehicle, Rocketplane Global CEO Chuck Lauer told participants at Space Access ’09 on Saturday that the biggest problem his company is facing is financial, not technical.

Lauer said the company had terrible timing, going out with the business plan for its six-person vehicle at a time when the current economic meltdown was getting underway. The hedge funds and venture capitalists who once had more money than they knew what to do with were already pulling up the welcome mats.

Lauer was more upbeat about his Oklahoma-based company’s technology, which is designed to carry a pilot and five passengers in a shirt-sleeve environment on short suborbital trips. There will be eight HD cameras on board that will be accessible each passenger’s digital video monitor. They can choose different cameras to watch to watch the ship’s flight.

Lauer praised Paragon Space Development Corporation, the Tucson-based company that is building the vehicle’s life-support system. He called them a “really super company” that is building a system that will allow millionauts to enjoy the trip safely without the burdens of wearing pressure suits.

Lauer said although you cannot always guarantee that passengers will get to space, you must ensure that they return back to Earth safely, he noted. Rocketplane is building abort scenarios and auto shutdowns into the vehicle to ensure that it can continue to fly even with an engine failure. If the rocket engine fails, the vehicle can still fly under jet power for up to 90 minutes, he said.

The company has been successful in selling seats to customers who give them away. Nestle gave away two tickets as part of a promotion that it did in relaunching its Kit Kat bar. Lauer said the campaign was very effective and the company saw a significant uptick in sales.

Lauer said that he was encouraged to hear about NASA’s efforts to purchase space on commercial suborbital vehicles to conduct microgravity experiments. Officials from the space agency’s Ames Research Center gave a presentation on Friday about the program.

“The non-tourist market is, we believe, a substantial part of the market for all of us,” he said, adding that it could account for 15 to 20 percent of Rocketplane’s business.

The company also is looking at providing point-to-point transportation within the Hawaiian islands. Lauer said he thinks that they could combine a real spaceport with a theme park that would have virtual reality rides to the Moon and Mars.