Rotary Rocket holds Virgin funding talks

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Andrzej Jeziorski/PARIS

California's Rotary Rocket is in talks with UK millionaire and Virgin founder Richard Branson on funding for its Roton re-usable launch vehicle (RLV) programme.

Rotary Rocket chief executive Gary Hudson is understood to have met Branson to discuss the programme. The company needs about $150 million to build and launch its first prototype Roton single-stage to orbit (SSTO) vehicle, and has secured about $31 million so far.

The Roton is designed for manned operations to launch satellites into low, medium or geostationary earth orbits, ascending under rocket power, and returning to its landing site under rotor power.

According to LunaCorp president David Gump, speaking on behalf of Hudson at the Paris World Summit on Space Transportation in Paris on 10 and 11 May, Rotary Rocket sees "billionaires who have a personal interest" in spaceflight as a primary potential funding source for the programme.

In April, Branson formally registered a new space tourism company, Virgin Galactic Airways, which Virgin executives hope will offer space travel to wealthy tourists in about 10 years' time. Virgin Atlantic engineers are expected to visit Rotary's assembly and flight facility in Mojave, California, this month.

Gump says that initial hover tests of the Roton Atmospheric Test Vehicle (ATV) are due to begin late this month. By the end of the year, the vehicle should be flying at up to 8,000ft (2,450m). Ground testing of the main rocket engine and ground-based structural testing will start in July. Entry into commercial service is due in 2001, says Gump.

Rotary is just one of several would-be RLV manufacturers engaged in fund raising. Kistler Aerospace has raised $450 million of the $750 million necessary to build five two-stage K-1 launch vehicles and two spaceports. Kelly Space and Technology has raised about $10 million of the $400 million it needs to fly its Astroliner RLV, designed to be towed to 20,000ft by a Boeing 747 before ascending into orbit under combined jet and rocket power.

Pioneer Rocketplane has raised $5 million for its $300 million Pathfinder programme, envisioning a vehicle which takes off conventionally under jet power and takes on rocket fuel from a tanker in mid-air before firing its rocket boosters.

Meanwhile, the VentureStar - the proposed successor programme to the half-size NASAX-33 - has received $231 million from Lockheed Martin. The company estimates a total development cost of about $5 billion.