Cutting launch costs proves to be rocket science
By Michael Hardy, Potomac Tech Journal

You wouldn’t know it unless somebody told you, but the idea behind TGV Rockets Inc. is summed up in its name.

“We didn’t want to name the company after ourselves, because the company is about the idea. We wanted to name our company after how we were going to run it,” said TGV chief executive officer Patrick Bahn. “It’s spartan and simple.”

In fact, “TGV” comes from Bahn’s original concept: A sub-orbital reusable rocket small enough to be launched by Two Guys in a Van — ergo TGV. 

Bahn, who handles marketing and business for the Bethesda, Md.-based company, has handed the technological reins over to chief engineer Len Cormier and chief operating officer Earl Renaud, who designed the company’s launch vehicle. 

Renaud, a propulsion engineer, has worked for Boeing, Pratt&Whitney and Aurora Flight Services in Manassas Va., Bahn said. Cormier worked at Lockheed-Martin and at North American Aviation. All three men were semi-retired and working as consultants when they formed TGV in 1998. 

Currently, Bahn is TGV’s only full-time employee, but he claims a 40-person cadre of scientists, marketers, artists and others whom he can call on as needed to move the company ahead.

The rocket, called Michelle-B, roughly from “Modular Incremental High Energy Launch Experiment,” will compete with other sounding rockets in a fairly crowded market, Bahn said. Sounding rockets fly into the upper atmosphere and linger there in near-zero gravity for a few minutes before beginning to fall back to Earth. They are widely used in scientific research. What sets Michelle-B apart is that it is reusable, landing with the aid of a parabolic sail and its engines.

Because his rocket will be reusable, Bahn believes his customers won’t have to pay the full cost for the vehicle. He calculates that he can sell flights for $500 per pound of payload, a fraction of the $10,000 per pound average in the industry. The lower cost would also open up markets that don’t currently use rockets, Bahn believes.

Even if Bahn can significantly cut the cost of sounding rocket flights, he’ll have to penetrate a market already crowded with other companies and convince them his rocket is better, said Henry Clarks, president emeritus of the Maryland Space Business Roundtable. Canada’s Bristol Aerospace Ltd., makers of the Black Brant rocket, have much of the U.S. Government market sewn up, Clarks said. “If this guy were to build this thing, he’d have to take the market away from the Canadians,” Clarks said.

But Bahn intends to sell into markets no one else is serving, and his assessment is sound, according to Frank DiBello, a managing director at SpaceVest. The venture capital firm, based in Reston, Va., specializes in space-focused companies, primarily those that build satellites. The fund is considering investing some of the $5 million Bahn needs to move the rocket from design to prototype.

“There is clearly a market for lower transportation costs for the kind of scientific work that can go on using sounding rockets. There’s no question about that,” DiBello said. 

Bahn is also right in concluding that some private companies or underfunded researchers who currently don’t have access to rockets would make use of low-cost launch capacity, DiBello added.

“There are a lot of payloads that are sitting waiting for opportunities to fly,” he said. “Many of them have the financial capacity to pay for the ride. If there were a lower cost of transportation, there would be a lot more demand.”

DiBello sees an untapped market in communications satellite companies, which might like to test components against launch stresses, temperature extremes and zero gravity before incorporating them into a satellite design. 

Despite the sound market assessment, TGV may have a hard time getting venture capital, cautioned Randy Parker, another SpaceVest managing director. “The issue from a venture standpoint is that [rocket companies] are generally very capital intensive, and there’s a long lead time to any revenue,” he said

While it’s impossible to guess how well TGV’s design will work until it can be tested, the company’s technical resources and business sense are solid, noted Kent Ewing, a test pilot and 28-year Navy veteran who signed on as TGV’s chairman after meeting Bahn, Cormier and Renaud.

After meeting with them several times and understanding their plan, “I started looking at this industry a little bit, and I saw that most people in the industry are going into orbit,” he said. “These guys have a plan that walks before they run, and they’ve found a niche market.”