WASHINGTON — Rocketplane Inc., the Oklahoma-based company that aspired to carry cargo to the international space station and fly thrill-seekers to the edge of space, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation in June.
George French, majority owner of Rocketplane and its two sibling companies — Rocketplane Kistler and Rocketplane Global — filed bankruptcy papers June 15 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in his home state of Wisconsin for each of the three companies. He also filed for personal bankruptcy, listing $8 million in liabilities.
Rocketplane Global, the suborbital space tourism company, lists nearly $2.3 million in liabilities; Rocketplane Inc. and Rocketplane Kistler (RpK), the latter a launch services company seeking to build the reusable K-1 rocket, owe more than $3.6 million to an identical 18-page list of creditors.
Creditors that Rocketplane owes money include French himself — claiming $735,000 in deferred RpK salary — and several companies owned or once owned by French, including Orde Advertising, Space Explorers Inc. and GD French Investments. Other major creditors include MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, a Richmond, British Columbia-based aerospace company that is owed $2.3 million, according to the bankruptcy filings.
RpK’s listed assets consist of the K-1 intellectual property — including designs and various patents — and $108,000 worth of unassembled flight hardware and other tooling and equipment. Rocketplane Global, which aimed to build an airplane-like spacecraft to carry five passengers into suborbital space, lists as its only assets four used General Electric F-85 jet engines located at a remanufacturing plant in Ontario. The engines, valued at $275,000 total, were previously pledged to a bank, according to the filing.
French’s largest listed asset is a $280,000 judgment against North Salt Lake, Utah-based IOSTAR Corp. for damages in a frivolous lawsuit. IOSTAR’s website, which contains no contact information, says the company “is ready to begin the production” of satellite-servicing “space tugs.” According to French’s bankruptcy filing, collecting the judgment may be difficult because IOSTAR’s principals have transferred all assets to other entities. French has petitioned the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Utah to force IOSTAR’s liquidation, according to French’s filing.
French told Space News in a July 8 interview that he poured every penny he had into Rocketplane in order to try to keep the company afloat. “This is not a situation we’d like to be in,” he said.
The 65-year-old entrepreneur no longer owns the billboard business that allowed him to invest in rockets in the first place. French said he sold Orde Advertising in 2005 and put the proceeds in Rocketplane.
In early 2006, French bought Kirkland, Wash.-based Kistler Aerospace just as that recently bankrupt company, which was developing the K-1 reusable rocket, was preparing to submit a proposal for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The newly formed RpK was chosen later that year to receive $207 million to help complete the K-1 and demonstrate the rocket’s ability to deliver cargo to the international space station.
RpK, however, failed to raise the large sums of private capital needed for the project, prompting NASA to rescind its COTS award in late 2007. The space agency held a new competition for the unspent money, selecting Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. in early 2008 to develop the Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus cargo tug with the help of $178 million in COTS funding.
As RpK fell on hard times, two high-profile space industry executives hired in 2004 to lead Kistler Aerospace out of bankruptcy — former Boeing Satellite Systems President Randy Brinkley and Wilbur Trafton, former president of the Sea Launch venture — resigned and are now suing French and RpK for breach of contract. Their pending lawsuits account for roughly $2 million of the liabilities claimed by French and Rocketplane.
According to a pretrial report lawyers for Brinkley and Trafton filed May 27 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, the two are seeking twice the amount of unpaid salary, accrued but unused vacation and severance pay they say French refused to pay after they resigned in late 2007. French has argued he was unable to pay them, according to the pretrial report.
French declined to discuss the lawsuits, and Brinkley and Trafton did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, French said he has not given up on seeing the K-1, which was designed by former NASA Apollo engineers, fly someday, even if it happens without his involvement.
“The patents and technology and engineering of the K-1 vehicle are still the best in the world, and I hope that an opportunity for it comes out of this process,” French said.
Debra Facktor Lepore, an aerospace consultant who worked for Kistler Aerospace from 1997 to 2005, said she would not be surprised to see somebody buy the K-1 intellectual property, if only to hold it in reserve.
“The question is could somebody execute on that particular design,” she said, “or maybe the practical thing is to probably evolve it in some ways” to take advantage of technological advances made in the last 10 years.