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Rocketeers try, try again

The sun glints off a shiny mockup of PlanetSpace's
Silver Dart hypersonic glider.

PlanetSpace may not have kept up with the ambitious spaceship-building schedule it set out three years ago, but the U.S.-Canadian venture says it's moving ahead with concepts for a new suborbital craft as well as an orbital launch system.

On the suborbital front, the company is working on a quarter-scale, turbojet-powered version of its Silver Dart hypersonic glider that will be tested as an unpiloted aerial vehicle. Meanwhile, on the orbital front, PlanetSpace says it has teamed up once again with Lockheed Martin and ATK to repitch a proposal for resupplying the international space station.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, two companies that beat out PlanetSpace in earlier NASA competitions, say they have also submitted proposals.

Suborbital flight: Beyond the graphics
Unlike those two other companies, PlanetSpace has not yet launched anything into outer space - which has led skeptics to complain that the company is more about computer-generated graphics than it is about actual hardware.

An artist's conception shows the Silver Dart in space.

PlanetSpace has a few things going for it, however: Its chairman, Indian-American entrepreneur Chirinjeev Kathuria, has made millions in other ventures related to telecommunications and medical equipment - and his cash helped keep Russia's Mir space station on life support for a few extra months in the year 2000. Its president and CEO, Geoff Sheerin, has drawn upon his hands-on experience at Canadian Arrow to work out technical details and help out with partnerships.

One of Sheerin's current projects is aimed at turning PlanetSpace's suborbital dream into a scaled-down reality: The Silver Dart is based on the U.S. Air Force's FDL-7 design of the 1960s, which was proposed as a military space plane but never made it past testing.

PlanetSpace envisions using the Silver Dart as a suborbital or even orbital craft that could be blasted into space on top of a rocket and glide back down to a landing, like the space shuttle. To verify computerized simulations of the craft's aerodynamics, the company plans to test the quarter-scale version of the plane as an UAV at Canadian and U.S. sites, Sheerin said.

He said the UAV measures just less than 13 feet long and 6 feet wide, and weighs in at 200 pounds. Propulsion will be provided by three turbojet engines.

"This bird will fly this year," Sheerin said. "It's being worked on right now."

Going for 'the real contract' in orbit
On the orbital side of the operation, PlanetSpace's biggest selling points are its partners:  Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which has been involved in NASA missions ranging from the space shuttle program to the Pluto-bound New Horizons probe; and ATK, which makes the shuttle's solid-rocket boosters. Both those companies play roles in NASA's next-generation space effort as well as PlanetSpace's Plan B for space station resupply.

Earlier this year, the trio of companies put in a bid to pick up $171 million in the second round of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS. That program is aimed at supporting the development of private-sector launch systems for sending cargo (and perhaps crew) to the station during the agency's 2010-2015 "spaceflight gap."

PlanetSpace lost out to Orbital Sciences in February, just as PlanetSpace lost out to SpaceX during an earlier round in the COTS competition. But Kathuria said the trio of companies will try, try again to win a piece of NASA's $3.1 billion station resupply contract.

"That's the real contract," Kathuria told me.

Kathuria said PlanetSpace's proposal was submitted in time to meet today's deadline, and spokesmen for Orbital and SpaceX confirmed that they filed proposals as well.

It's safe to assume that all three companies will be offering the options they laid out for the COTS competition: For Orbital, that would be the Taurus 2 rocket and the Cygnus spacecraft; for PlanetSpace's group, that would be ATV's Athena-style rocket and Lockheed Martin's Orbital Transfer Vehicle; and for SpaceX, it's the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule

NASA is due to select the winners by Nov. 28, and the five months between now and then could get interesting. Here are other tidbits from the commercial spaceflight scene:

  • SpaceX: SpaceX is preparing for its third test launch of the Falcon 1 rocket from Omelek Island in the Pacific Ocean. Launch had been planned for late June, but was delayed due to a defect found in an engine nozzle. The next launch opportunity runs from July 29 to Aug. 6. One of the scheduled payloads is a NASA-built experimental solar sail called the NanoSail-D. Other experimental payloads include NASA's PreSat nanosatellite and the Pentagon's Trailblazer experimental sensing satellite.
  • Spacehab: President Jim Royston confirmed that his company was letting its unfunded COTS agreement with NASA lapse, and that Spacehab did not submit a proposal for the NASA resupply contract. But Royston told me that work is continuing on the Allsat multipurpose satellite service system, and that vehicle may well make an appearance someday at a space station near you. Spacehab is concentrating on how the space station can be used as a national laboratory for microgravity research, he said.
  • Virgin Galactic: Mojave Skies photoblogger Alan Radecki passed along a series of photos of the WhiteKnightTwo mothership under construction at Mojave's Scaled Composites shop, courtesy of Virgin Galactic. Flight Global's Rob Coppinger presents a "spy picture" of WhiteKnightTwo with the wing attached. WhiteKnightTwo, which eventually will carry the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane up to 50,000 feet for its air launch, is due to be rolled out for public display on July 28.
  • Blue Origin: Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos generally keeps his private space effort under wraps, but he touched upon Blue Origin's future in an interview aired by NPR's "On Point" program. (Jump to the 37-minute point.) "Bezos confirmed suspicions some of us have had that he is presently developing a second testbed vehicle to follow up on the flights of the small 'Goddard,'" industry observer Charles Lurio said in The Lurio Report. One or two more test beds will follow before commercial service begins, Bezos said. Will Blue Origin hit its 2010 schedule? "We'll have to wait and see," Bezos said. Lurio said "it may be legitimate to ask if Blue Origin is going to skip suborbital commercialization in favor of going to orbit." 
  • Elsewhere: Transformational Space (a.k.a. t/Space) and Constellation Services International, which both have unfunded COTS agreements with NASA, say they're not putting in proposals for space station resupply. Rocketplane Kistler originally had COTS funding, but lost it and isn't taking part in the latest competition either. "I hope that the process leads to resupply of the space station in a financially reasonable, regular and repetitive manner," George French, Rocketplane's chairman and CEO, told me.