Rocketplane's chief executive officer, George French, hasn't stopped reaching for the moon.
His space companies, and French personally, have been through bankruptcy. The remnants of Rocketplane Kistler, which claimed an $18 million tax credit while based in Oklahoma City, sold at auction for $25,000.
The buyer, Craig Dickman, founder and CEO of Breakthrough Fuel in Green Bay, Wis., and a longtime friend of French's, said he attended the auction in December 2011 with no intention to buy. But when no one else bid on the company, he made an offer that was part pity and part investment opportunity.
“I was shocked there were no other buyers,” Dickman said. “Knowing there was something there, I didn't want to see it completely die. I still think there's value there.”
Dickman said the minimum bid was $50,000, but when there were no takers, the auctioneer asked for any offers. He submitted $25,000 and went home with Rocketplane Kistler's aerospace patents and intellectual property. The court's report of sale also lists some tools, hardware and structural components, but Dickman said most of the physical assets were disposed as scrap.
Dickman has known French for more than 20 years and previously invested in Rocketplane, as well as served as the company's chairman. He said French was not involved in the auction purchase and he's hoping to sell the patents he acquired and perhaps make a little money along the way.
Bankruptcy a fresh start?
French and his space companies — Rocketplane, Rocketplane Kistler and Rocketplane Global — have been fairly quiet since leaving Oklahoma in 2009, after closing the Oklahoma City headquarters at Will Rogers World Airport and relinquishing the hangar at the Oklahoma Spaceport in Burns Flat. The next year, Rocketplane filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Wisconsin.
But with the fresh start provided by the bankruptcy cases' conclusion, some company officials have begun hinting they'd like to get back in the space race again.
In a May 2012 video interview with moonandback.com, Chuck Lauer, co-founder of Rocketplane Global, says the Rocketplane Kistler auction was a turning point for the company.
“When we were finally able to get the Kistler assets back out of bankruptcy ... we'd gotten all the bad stuff behind us,” Lauer says in the interview. His statement contradicts Dickman, who says he possesses the assets. Lauer couldn't be reached for comment.
In June 2011, retired military and civilian test pilot Alfred “Paul” Metz spoke at NASA's Langley Research Center and was identified as being the current vice president and chief test pilot for Rocketplane Global. Metz, who has flown aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin, joined Rocketplane in 2008.
French confirmed that Metz is still Rocketplane's test pilot. “But we don't have a plane for him to test,” French said. He declined to elaborate on who else was on the company's payroll but says they are actively looking for investors.
“We have programs we're hoping to resurrect,” French said. “I was the biggest funder of the project before. I don't have any money now. I have to depend on other people to push the program forward.”
“When we get the money, we will fire it up in what we call a hot start,” he added.
The Oklahoma tax credit French and his company acquired — the Space Transportation Vehicle Provider Credit — was created to attract aerospace companies to the state. Rocketplane received the credit in 2003 and later sold it to Bank of Oklahoma, a legal practice that has been questioned by the Legislature. That tax credit program has been eliminated.
Rep. David Dank, R-Oklahoma City, has for six years pushed the state to require more accountability for tax credits. He said allowing venture capital tax credits to expire in 2012 is progress in the right direction but there is still more to be done.
Rocketplane, Dank said, is a “poster child” for tax credits given without any oversight or any real meaningful conditions. He said he will refile legislation this year to eliminate transferable tax credits as well as insist tax credits come with a cost-benefit analysis and other restrictions.
French emphasizes that his company fulfilled its obligation to the state of Oklahoma. He still believes Burns Flat is the best place to fly a suborbital vehicle like the one Rocketplane was designing and says he'll return to the state when possible.
“Aerospace is a very expensive, very tricky field to get involved in,” says French, who started out with a successful billboard company in Wisconsin. “We will return to Oklahoma when we get our program going again.”
But Dank says Oklahoma wouldn't welcome the company back and adds that it's a shame the company doesn't have to repay the $18 million.
“We've had that bucket of manure once. We don't need it again,” Dank said.
• 2001: California-based Rocketplane is one of seven companies nationwide that signs a “gentleman's agreement” to come to the Oklahoma Spaceport under a new law allowing tax credits for companies investing in Oklahoma's space industry.
• 2003: Rocketplane qualifies for an $18 million tax credit in Oklahoma.
• 2004: Rocketplane sells the tax credit and uses the proceeds to set up shop and hire employees. It also releases specifications of its XP spacecraft and says it can take tourists into space by 2006 for just under $100,000 each.
• 2005: Rocketplane pushes launch date to 2007 and raises the ticket price to $200,000. Former NASA astronaut John Herrington joins the staff.
• 2006: Rocketplane merges with Kistler Aerospace Corp. and receives a $207 million NASA contract to develop a rocket-powered vehicle to reach orbital space. The Oklahoma Spaceport receives approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
• 2007: NASA drops its deal with Rocketplane after the company fails to raise enough private funding.
• 2008: Herrington resigns as Rocketplane pilot.
• 2009: Rocketplane abandons its office at Will Rogers World Airport and relocates to Wisconsin.
• 2010: Rocketplane files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Wisconsin, as does CEO George French.
• 2011: The remnants of Rocketplane Kistler sell for $25,000 at an auction in Green Bay, Wis.
Aerospace is a very expensive, very tricky field to get involved in.”