After Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) lost its funded COTS Space Act agreement with NASA to help develop the K-1, the conventional wisdom was that the company was effectively dead. After all, RpK had difficulty raising the hundreds of millions in private financing needed to develop the vehicle even with the NASA imprimatur; it would seeming be that much harder to do it without the COTS agreement. And, indeed, given RpK’s low profile in the 18 months since the award’s termination, that would seem to be the case.
However, Rocketplane’s Chuck Lauer, speaking Saturday at the Space Access ’09 conference in Phoenix, said RpK was still alive, if only barely. Company president George French “has essentially stabilized everything to try to get to a new financial structure,” Lauer said. What has buoyed their hopes has been the NASA commercial resupply contracts issued late last year to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, with costs up to four times what RpK had proposed with the K-1. “We were kind of the first canary in the coal mine looking for private banking/hedge fund types of deals” when the economy turned south in 2007, he said. “If the market is 4x and we had even a small number of launches, we could have financed.”
“The only way to get to low-cost orbital transportation is to get away from expendable systems and go to reusable, and K-1 is the only 100% fully reusable orbital system anywhere close to flying,” Lauer said. “Within three years of funding we could be in flight… It’s tough, it’s certainly tough now, but it’s not impossible.”
The suborbital side of the company, Rocketplane Global, has also been focused in the last year on funding rather than technology. “We’re well north of $100 million of additional capital needed,” he said, with $24 million invested to date that has gone into design and development of the XP spaceplane.