Profile: Debra Facktor Lepore

President, AirLaunch LLC

A s a tireless advocate for reliable yet dramatically lower-cost access to space, Debra Facktor Lepore has spent the past decade doing battle with what she politely terms “the space fear factor.”

“The fear factor is being afraid that you don’t know how to do something, or that it’s too hard, or it won’t work, or if it fails it will end up on the front page of the Washington Post and you will lose your job,” says the business-savvy aerospace engineer. “Rocket science is one of the riskiest things we do in this world and yet for a risky business we are remarkably risk averse.”

Facktor Lepore earned her stripes in the entrepreneurial rocket business with Kistler Aerospace, the start-up that came closer than any other to fielding a fully reusable launcher with private capital. It was not long after Kistler’s backers pulled the plug on the project last October that AirLaunch came calling.

AirLaunch announced in November it had won a one-year, $17.8 million contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Air Force to continue developing its QuickReach launcher under a broader rocket technology program called Falcon . AirLaunch successfully deployed a mockup of the QuickReach rocket from the back of an Air Force C-17 cargo plane in September, conducted a full-scale stage-separation test on the ground in January, and is preparing for a second drop test this spring.

AirLaunch also is a key member of the t/Space-led team angling for some of the $500 million NASA plans to spend through the end of the decade to foster development of commercial crew- and cargo-delivery services to the international space station.

Facktor Lepore spoke recently with Space News staff writer Brian Berger.

Are you seeing any hesitation from the Air Force about deploying the QuickReach booster from inside a cargo plane?

One of the biggest challenges has been in integrating the space Air Force and the flying Air Force. The space community is used to launching rockets from the Cape or Vandenberg while the C-17 community is used to carrying people, tanks and humanitarian supplies around the world, not launching space missions. Integrating those two communities where you have a space mission that’s part of the C-17 priority list is a big deal. Part of what we are doing under this phase of our contract is working through the C-17 safety process.

Given the number of military organizations involved in the Falcon program, don’t you need dozens of signatures to do the most mundane things?

The first drop was like that. It took four months to get the C-17 asset available for the test. Rightly so, the Air Force is protective of its C-17s and we are in a wartime situation so availability is that much more of an issue. The first time was very hard, but the test went so well that the C-17 community now seems enthusiastic about this project. One of my favorite images from the first drop test is a shot taken just after the drop test article has left the aircraft. The C-17’s two load masters, unprompted, step in from the sides and look down like they were surprised it actually worked as planned. And the C-17 pilots afterwards were like, “that was really easy, that was really fun. Can we do it again?”

What will distinguish AirLaunch’s next drop test from the first ?

The test article will be a little heavier and we will drop it from a higher altitude. The first drop was done from 6,000 feet [1,800 meters] with a 50,000-pound [22,500-kilogram] inert drop-test article. We’re planning to work our way up to dropping a 70,000-pound test article from about 30,000 feet — our operational vehicle weight and deployment altitude. My guess is it will probably take us three or four drop tests to get there.

What does AirLaunch need to move ahead into development?

We have to perform and meet our milestones in this phase. Our Critical Design Review is targeted for fall. That’s where DARPA and the Air Force will make a go or no-go decision. Our goal is to get approval to move into the demonstration phase of the Falcon program, which would lead to a live drop, which equals test launch, in 2008.

Do you have a backup plan for developing the QuickReach booster without continued DARPA and Air Force backing?

I come from a company where we raised lots of money. If it were to come to that, it is always easier to go get money when you already have some. The best thing about what DARPA and the Air Force are doing with the Falcon small launch vehicle program is that they are helping solve the chicken-and-the-egg conundrum that has troubled so many launch ventures. An investor always wants to see that you have a customer lined up and the customer always wants to see that you have investors.

Are you satisfied with NASA’s approach to procuring commercial space station crew and cargo services?

I am thrilled the Commercial Orbital Transportation Solicitation has come. It’s a very clearly written solicitation. NASA has come a long way toward getting their arms around a different way of doing business. The entrepreneurial community has been asking for something like this since 1999, when NASA started studying alternatives to the shuttle for resupplying the station.

What’s wrong with typical government contracts?

They are fine for some things, but they are not a good fit for efforts where there is no predefined solution. When you are under a typical federal acquisition contract there are rules for everything. One of these is a requirement to use nothing but double-sided recycled paper. Now it’s very reasonable that we should not be destroying a lot of trees in our quest to explore the universe, but the type of paper we use really has no bearing on mission success. It shouldn’t matter if I use pink polka-dotted paper as long as I have the math and physics and science right. To follow all these rules, you need to have a lot of extra people and processes in place that have nothing to do with mission success. For the bigger companies, that’s just part of the cost of doing business. But for small entrepreneurial businesses, it’s a big, very artificial barrier that stifles innovation and discourages small firms from pursuing government business in the first place.

Does AirLaunch need to succeed on the Falcon program for t/Space to be a credible competitor for NASA’s commercial space station crew and cargo opportunity?

Right now I would say yes. Our success on the previous phase of the Falcon program and now reaching our first milestone in the current phase is a big help and good timing for the t/Space proposal.

Is the QuickReach booster powerful enough to launch a crew or cargo module to the international space station?

Right now we are sized to help the United States achieve the operationally responsive space-lift capability called for in the national space transportation policy released last year. Under the Falcon program, that means demonstrating the ability to deliver 1,000 pounds to low Earth orbit within 24 hours of call up for less than $5 million.

How would the QuickReach scale up for a space station mission?

There are a couple of different growth paths. One involves incremental improvements, such as switching to a composite tank for a lighter-weight second stage or adding thrusters to the avionics module to create what would in effect be a third stage without changing the overall size of the booster. Or you could go with a bigger booster and a larger aircraft such as a C-5, AN-124, DC-10 or 747. Maybe you still deploy from inside or from beneath the aircraft. That approach would give us something like the low end of the Delta 2 rocket’s lift capability.

Can NASA really expect a commercial firm to deliver a viable space station logistics service by the end of the decade given the limited amount of first-year funding available?

More money up front is always better; otherwise, you can end up with a bunch of studies and PowerPoint charts. NASA knows it needed this resupply capability yesterday. The best thing for NASA and industry to do is to proceed very diligently into hardware development and testing. As a community we’ve already studied this problem in depth, so I would expect companies to propose milestones that are hardware and test oriented, not propose more studies.