29 October 2002
Features - Other (None)
Beyond-Earth Enterprises
Interview with Joe Latrell
by G B Leatherwood
By G.B. Leatherwood

In the 1920s and 30s, Robert Goddard, working in his garage, became the “Father of Modern Rocketry.” Dedicated hobbyists carry out this tradition to this day without massive funding or government support.

One of these projects is a sub-orbital spacecraft, and the working model is, according to Joseph Latrell, president of Beyond-Earth Enterprises, “…taking up a large amount of space…in my garage!” In his own words, here is what he has to say about his project and his rockets, the Kestrel and the Raven.

Space Future (SF): Joe, how did you get started? 

Joseph Latrell (JL) Well, first we came up with a name, then filled out some paperwork, and…(Grin!) Seriously, Beyond-Earth Enterprises started out as a tribute to my son Joshua, one of our twins who died of SIDS. I knew that I wanted to do something for him so that I could look back later in life and see the impact that he had made in my life blossom into something bigger. I thought a rocket to space would be a fantastic tribute. The Joshua Project was born. As I started designing high-powered rockets, I realized that a goal such as this needs to be shared. After all, who would remember a few rocket launches? I saw a need for some sort of way to bring excitement back to humanity and thought ‘why not scale this concept up?’ I had been talking to friends about this rocket thing and they agreed that if you are going to go to this much trouble, why not go for it all? 

We have a company, we are working on designs and we still get together to play LaserQuest every Friday. All of us have ‘real jobs’ so we can work at Beyond-Earth without impacting financials. There are four of us along with the usual assortment of legal types, engineers, accountants, consultants, etc. 

SF: I believe you said you were going to locate at the Oklahoma Spaceport? 

JL: We haven’t yet put offices at the Oklahoma Spaceport. We plan on having something ready by the end of the year (2002). While we would love the setup, the reality is that the Oklahoma Spaceport is not yet ready for commercial use. The FAA has not finished the paperwork and there are several other hurdles to cross. Major sections of data we need simply do not exist. Sure there are other spaceports, but I think Oklahoma has the potential for what we need. 

SF: Speaking of the FAA, how are you coming along with that process? 

JL: Reality check time. The FAA doesn’t even know what to do with regard to commercialized space. There have been several drafts and revisions, but I really don’t think they are going to play with spacecraft until they are forced to. I see them ignoring the field until two or three companies (and the public) gang up on them for a solution. That was the long answer, now for the short one: ‘We are monitoring the FAA in regards to launch requirements.’ 

SF: Your first rocket is named Kestrel. You said it was proposed to fly by the end of 2002. It’s now August. Tell us about your plans. 

JL: To be honest we are a bit behind schedule for flying Kestrel. She is a scale model with a hybrid (solid-liquid) engine, but due to fire restrictions, we have had to delay our program. We are looking at the added costs of moving flight-testing to Nevada. 

SF: Your next model is the Raven. You say it is a potential X-Prize contender. Tell us about it. 

JL: Raven is our first commercial vehicle. It is designed to carry two passengers and the pilot. While it does qualify for the X-Prize, the first priority is to create a commercial sub-orbital craft. There are a planned total of seven of these craft each named in honor of the Mercury astronauts. We are looking into the legal aspects of using the astronauts’ names and this is not set in stone. 

The Raven-class craft use interchangeable modules: one for the crew, one for flight characteristics, and one is the propulsion module. The ships can be reconfigured should one of the modules not pass preflight testing--thus minimizing downtime. Most of the components in these modules are off the shelf (or as close as you can get) with major assembly being performed by third parties. 

We do envision a short-term launch turnaround of three-to-four weeks during the FAA testing phases. After the ships have proven themselves, we are looking to launch one per week, if not two. 

SF: Without divulging any secrets, what is your funding source? Who are your sponsors? Jobs and Wozniak built the first Apple computer in their garage, but a multimillion-dollar spacecraft is a whole different animal. 

JL: Funding is derived from a few different sources right now, myself being a major contributor. Other than that, I cannot tell you much. We have not publicly sought outside investment at this time, preferring to keep quiet about our intentions. However, we will always entertain serious investment inquiries. Interested parties should check our web site periodically: www.beyond-earth.com.

SF: There are a number of technical considerations, like manufacturing and machining, telemetry, engineering, and so on. How are you handling this?

JL: Tools can be bought or built, but building this kind of craft takes patience more than anything else. We have a total of four people actively working on the company with more people in advisory positions. The disciplines we are focusing most on are aerodynamics and ergonomics. Most of the construction will be farmed out to third parties once the design is finalized. Telemetry is still in the “black box” stage. Some suggestions have been made to use standard telemetry systems that are pre-built, but some other ideas have included cell phone and off the shelf GPS systems. I think a hybrid will be used when the final system is finished. 

SF: And most important to the viewers of Space Future, what is your personal vision of the future of space tourism? 

JL: Space tourism is not going to happen until the public can afford it. Sure it is great to watch Mark Shuttleworth or some other rich guy take a weeklong spin on the ISS, but when does the “average Joe” get to take his vacation there? Not anytime soon.

Airplane travel went through a barnstorming age when pilots just out of the Great War would travel across the country selling rides to all takers for $5 apiece. Space tourism needs this period as well—a point where the average person can plunk down a few thousand dollars and take a quick thrill ride to space. And I do mean a few thousand—not 100 thousand.

Everyone has this model of recouping development costs quickly, and I think it stinks.

The first few passengers will get soaked, then as the market matures, the price will come down? I don’t think so. It is better to amortize the entire cost of the project--vehicles, crew, training, facilities, etc. Figure out how many flights you are going to have over the life of the program and set the price.

I know the marketing community will want to wring my neck for that blasphemy, but this is a new model. This is a new field. Let’s try something new. 

Eventually someone is going to put up a space station with lots of zero gravity activities, but I see this happening sometime after 2010. The costs are too high right now to launch it, but design work should be moving at a brisk pace today. 

BTW, the folks you want working in space are not primarily scientists. NASA has this strange need to send overqualified people on missions. What you need to build and run a space station are some full-time “wildcatters”--people who are trained and accustomed to working in conditions such as a space station. These people do exist. They are cooks and engineers and designers. They are all used to working in places like the sea floors and remote locations such as Antarctica. These are the ones you want building and maintaining things so your crew and passengers will enjoy their stays. 
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G B Leatherwood 29 October 2002
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