Rocketplane Global Expects to Begin Suborbital Space Tourist Flights in 2013

Rocketplane Global Vice President Chuck Lauer said today that the company expects to begin flying space tourists on suborbital rides out of Cecil Field in Jacksonville by 2013. Rocketplane has signed a letter of intent with the Jacksonville Aviation Authority to become the first commercial space operator to use the former Naval air base turned spaceport, Lauer told attendees at Space Access ’10 in Phoenix.

Lauer  said that that Rocketplane would fund development of its six-person space plane as part of a $300 million project that would also create a Spaceport Visitor’s Center at the Jacksonville site. The center would include full motion 3D/HD suborbital flight simulators that would allow visitors to experience a 4-minute version of the 45-minute spaceflight that well-heeled passengers will fly aboard Rocketplane’s suborbital vehicle.

Selling day passes to the visitor’s center would generate revenues of $100 to $150 million to support operations.  Lauer said that broadening the revenue stream makes sense to the investor community. He expects to announce a funding package within the next few weeks that will cover the development of ground facility and Rocketplane’s XP space plane.

Lauer said that Cecil Field is the first spaceport that is already in a major tourist destination. The Jacksonville area has 10 million visitors per year, providing a good base to support the Visitor’s Center. By contrast, Spaceport America is located in a sparsely populated area of New Mexico.

Rocketplane had done a lot off the design work and some testing on its six-passenger vehicle. However, it has been unable to obtain funding  in order to conduct a flight testing program due in part to the global economic meltdown. Last year, it laid off most of its employees and closed its offices at the Oklahoma Spaceport. At Space Access ’09, Lauer said it would take more than $100 million to get to the first flight.

Rocketplane’s teams are on standby, ready to get begin work again once funding is in place. He estimated that it will take about two-and-a-half years to develop the real estate element of the plan. While that work is being done, Rocketplane will rebuild its Oklahoma operations and proceed with building the space plane and conducting a flight test program, Lauer said.

The first space tourism flights would take place in 2013. Prior to flying passengers, Rocketplane will fly scientific experiments aboard test flights. The research market could be larger than the one for space tourists, Lauer said.

Cecil Field has obtained a flight corridor that will take passengers out over the Atlantic Ocean. They will experience several minutes of weightlessness as they view the entire Florida peninsula.

Rocketplane wants to base XP vehicles at sites around the world. Possible spaceports include:

  • Oklahoma
  • Hawaii
  • Hokkaido, Japan
  • Singapore
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Spain
  • Sweden.

The Hawaiian flights would go between two islands, allowing passengers to see the entire island chain. The XP vehicle has conventional engines that allow for a powered descent and landing and cross-range capability to land at different airports. By contrast, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing without engine power.

Lauer said the XP could begin to link spaceports around the world with point-to-point flights. He foresees Rocketplane developing an evolutionary  family of vehicles over the next ten years based on the XP design.