When Rocketplane's program manager, David Faulkner, went before the Oklahoma Space Industrial Development Authority recently, he told the group business wasn't exactly entering orbit.
In the past 14 months, Rocketplane lost a $207 million orbital NASA contract, let go of its suborbital space plane's chief engineer and junked its Learjet fuselage. The company's launch dates have come and gone.
Still, Faulkner said, Rocketplane recently hired a mix of employees, including a new chief designer, George Law, formerly of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, and a new test pilot, Paul Metz, also from Lockheed, who follows after the departure of Oklahoma astronaut John Herrington.
"We've had to scale back a little bit on staffing here recently," Faulkner told the authority. "But I'm proud to say that we have 17 employees both part-time and full-time, a mix there. We're continuing on. We are focusing on funding."
Funding, explained Faulkner, is tight. Nevertheless, he said, Rocketplane has convinced a few people the company is still bound for space, and claims $5 million in advance bookings. In 2003, the state of Oklahoma awarded Rocketplane investors an $18 million tax credit to help build the suborbital plane.
"We are going (for funding) not only domestically, but internationally," he said. "The weakness of the dollar attracts foreign investors. We may be able to garner some of that. But it's a tough road."
Outgoing authority Chairman Don Rodolph said he welcomed the news.
"We're pleased to hear that you have Dr. Law hired. That's great," Rodolph said. "The 17 employees " very good. We're excited about that. We'll be still more excited when you make your first test flight. We still hope that will be in the latter part of 2009?"
"No " we're not going to " I'm not saying no on that," he said. "I'm saying no, we aren't going to release any dates because it really is, until we get this funding, it's just " I'm not going to misrepresent anything. It's kinda " we've been working at this for a long time, and I understand that it is frustrating for all of us. But we're not giving up. And that's my commitment."
Afterward, Faulkner spoke with Oklahoma Gazette.
OKG: So, you guys are staying in Oklahoma.
OKG: Not going?
Faulkner: No. What gave you the impression we are leaving? We did scale back some employees "¦
OKG: That's probably what we thought. And there seemed to be some movement about going to Wisconsin or something like that. So you guys plan on sticking around?
Faulkner: Plan on it. The state is invested in us quite a bit. I can't project whether we are going to be successful or not. I mean, fund raising is really difficult, you know? So, I think we have to " we are giving it our best. People like George Law wouldn't be coming onboard if they didn't think there was something here.
OKG: He's got some powerful credentials.
Faulkner: Both of those two (Law and Metz coming onboard) say immense amounts, and I didn't even mention the people they are bringing in tow with them.
OKG: So they are bringing people with them, as well. Sort of a team?
Faulkner: Well, relationships. Yeah, that's what we've been trying to do, flesh these folks out. What we've done, essentially, is establish a system of what we call reviewer mentors. These people, many of them are in retirement, but they are willing to come onboard half-time or more for a period of time to get us going once we get our funding. Many of them are working " like Paul and George " are working right now to help us get funding. And what they will do is provide that transitionary support. There are people with multiple program experience, the best in the industry.
OKG: Well, (Lockheed's experimental fighter jet) is a big deal. I saw the "NOVA" special. And that guy (Law) was with them?
Faulkner: Yeah " well, you know " I'm giving you some information here, and you guys tend to do hatchet pieces on us. It's really unfortunate. You guys keep tearing down something we are trying to do here in the state. And it's really unfortunate. I mean, why are you doing that?
OKG: Well, I guess there is a lot of skepticism that remains in place.
Faulkner: That may be from a few people. But you are really not getting both sides. You really aren't asking " we are taking the high road on all these things. Most of the time we don't want to talk to you because you misconstrue a lot of things. You've done it several times in the past.
OKG: Now, specifically, what have I misconstrued?INNUENDOS
Faulkner: You use innuendos in the articles. You'll take a quote and you'll insinuate things and play off of it. That's just dirty journalism.
OKG: I'll tell you, I'd endeavor not to insinuate or use innuendo. There are specific issues that we have looked at very critically. One would be (former OSIDA Executive Director) Jay Edwards voting for the funding of Rocketplane to begin with and then immediately (within two months), going to work for Rocketplane. Those things draw questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. That's a serious issue. It looks pretty bad.
Faulkner: That is not a serious issue. I wasn't around during those times, but my understanding is that we met all the requirements and that's the end of it. Meeting all those requirements was the litmus test to get those tax credits.
OKG: It looks like a conflict of interest on Mr. Edwards' part and on the part of Rocketplane for hiring him in that short span of time. No one has ever answered that question. So those are "¦
Faulkner: You'd have to ask our CEO more about it because I wasn't around. (Editor's note: Rocketplane CEO George French Jr. refused comment when contacted.)
OKG: Right, right. Maybe that puts you in an unfair position. There's, you know " as you pointed out up here, a lot of us have taken exception to you setting a date, not meeting it, setting it, not meeting it, setting it, not meeting it.
Faulkner: And I'm not going to set any more dates until we get funded. And I want to challenge you. Look at the other people out there in the industry. Which ones haven't been humbled by this business?
OKG: There are few. I'd say one success is (Burt) Rutan (whose SpaceShipOne garnered the Ansari X Prize).
Faulkner: Look at their plans, and look at how many of them went off exactly the way they first envisioned them. So why are you beating us up? Every time we've learned something, we make changes toward success.
OKG: We fear (for) the public's interest (in Rocketplane). We fear that a lot of movement in there doesn't look good. It (Rocketplane) seemed to be in full swing, the original design. And then it was all scrapped. A lot was scrapped. It looked like a lot was scrapped.
Faulkner: No, it wasn't. That's not true. The Learjet fuselage was scrapped. "¦ That was a huge change for us. But it was a necessary one. We saw the business plan. We saw that three passengers was just not going to work. And a Learjet fuselage, while it was expeditious when we started off, it was better to have more passengers. And so it forced us down another road. We learned, we changed and we moved forward. That's going to make us a viable business going forward. All of the subsystems were transferred over. All of the work, and that was where most of the dollars were spent. The prototype wing " we got what we needed out of it, we designed it, got it to a point, realized what we needed to out of that design, and we are done with it. We needed to move on and adapt to the new fuselage. But all the rocket engine work, all the money spent on that, is still intact and has not changed one bit. And all the subsystems. So, you know, the airframe is one part of it. This is development. It's not production. We are not to that point yet. In development, you do some things, try some things and make some changes to adjust to what you learned in the R & D phase. Which we are out of now.
OKG: I think a lot of the original promises being made and not being met raised a lot of suspicion on our part.
Faulkner: All I can say is that every investor who has come into this has certain expectations, and when you get into the design, it ends up being " for all of the players " a longer process. It's taken longer; it's cost more. You know, it's one thing to do an X Prize, and not carry passengers over and over, day in and day out. It's another thing to carry them, and carry them safely. And that is what we are trying to do.
OKG: Is there anything that you would like to add that I've not asked you at this point?
Faulkner: Other than we're committed to seeing this through. Putting all the people in place, the team. The design is where it can be executed. Now it's a question of the markets. Is there going to be an investor or investor group who will pick it up? That's what we are focused on now. Like I said, we were contacted by a group that deals mainly in private equity who contacted us. It will be interesting to see what you write, if it's fair.
OKG: Well, I appreciate you giving me your time and talking with me. It's all right to be straight up. I appreciate it. I hope I've answered your questions about whatever issues we might have.
Faulkner: Yeah. What you write will tell a lot about your character. It will.
OKG: I know, I know. I've been doing this for 20 years, man.
Faulkner: OK, nice to meet you. "Ben Fenwick