Space tourism firm faces bankruptcy

OKLAHOMA CITY — An aerospace company that had once hoped to soar in the space tourism business may end up landing in bankruptcy court.

Rocketplane filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last month in Wisconsin, where the company moved after closing its Oklahoma City headquarters and relinquishing its hangar at the Oklahoma Spaceport in Burns Flat in 2009.

CEO George French filed personally as well as for each of three business entities: Rocketplane, Rocketplane Global and Rocketplane Kistler. Debts for each were listed at about $8.2 million, $3.7 million, $2.6 million and $7.4 million, respectively.

The company's assets include some structural components and the patented intellectual property from the company's work designing an aircraft capable of transporting tourists into space. The design patents may now be sold as part of the bankruptcy liquidation.

The company started with investments that included an $18 million state tax credit, received in 2003 and later sold to Bank of Oklahoma. That credit, the Space Transportation Vehicle Provider Credit, expired at the end of the year, the Oklahoma Tax Commission said.

Rocketplane received private investments as well.

"We came there and put all our money on the table. We spent it all," French said.

Creditors listed in the filing include individuals, financial institutions and other businesses throughout the U.S. and several countries.

Former astronaut John Herrington, hired by Rocketplane in 2005, said the rocket's first design revolved around modifying the body of a Learjet. But the engineering team decided the best route was to build the aircraft from the ground up.

Dollars were spent on jet engines to power the vehicle and on a contract with a rocket engine manufacturer to build a liquid oxygen/kerosene engine, Herrington said.

Salaries of the company's staff — which in 2006 numbered about 50 — also ate into the funding. French has said the $18 million was spent on "employees' 200,000 hours of design work."

Fresh investments began drying up in 2007, including the company's primary funding source, and it struggled to stay afloat.

"If we had successfully acquired the capital that we needed, we would have grown into a major player in the commercial space program," Herrington said.

French said the company determined that to be viable, it would need multiple vehicles at a cost of $100 million each. He remains hopeful that Rocketplane will emerge from bankruptcy and return to Oklahoma.

"We believe Oklahoma was the right place, and we still believe the Oklahoma Spaceport is the right place,'' French said. "It's the best in the world — that's why we chose it."