The rise and fall of Rocketplane

Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has an extended account of George French and his involvement with Rocketplane, the company that, for a time, was developing both suborbital and orbital vehicles (the latter under a NASA COTS agreement) before running into financial problems and eventually going bankrupt. French had long been interested in space, but it was a trip to Space Camp in 1990 that provided an “epiphany”, leading him to get more involved–in time and, later, money–with spaceflight, eventually with Rocketplane.

French, as the article describes, effectively went “all in” with Rocketplane, selling in 2006 the billboard division of the Wisconsin advertising company where he had made his money, and ultimately investing about $25 million into the company. As company officials previously noted, French said the company had lined up more than $300 million in outside investment, including a teachers’ pension fund in Canada, only to lose that in the opening waves of the subprime mortgage crisis. That, in effect, was the beginning of the end of Rocketplane, although the company didn’t file for Chapter 7 (liquidation) bankruptcy until this summer.

The article is based primarily on interviews with French and some friends, although John Herrington, the former NASA astronaut who worked for Rocketplane for a few years, offers a little different viewpoint on the company. Herrington recalls that “within a month” of joining Rocketplane in 2005 company executives were concerned the company (at the time focused solely on suborbital spaceflight) had enough cash to get through the year. Herrington added that he had to sue French to get the final $10,000 of his $200,000 signing bonus; French didn’t recall such a suit but the article found that, in fact, a judgment had been entered against French, who then paid.


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