What if SpaceX lost the battle with its first real competitor, Kistler Aerospace?

We’re in the middle of the ’90s, the Cold War is just a faraway memory, collaboration in space between countries is starting to increase dramatically, but there’s only one aspect not changing at all in this equation: launch costs

The high price of launch remains a significant barrier to the development of all space activities and only a fully-reusable transportation system can significantly reduce the cost of access to space.

 Although the initial cost of such a system is greater than expendable vehicles of equivalent performance, the additional development budget can be recouped after only few flights. Additional costs for more reliable systems are justified by flying the vehicle multiple times.

A new player in the business

Those are the premises on which Kistler Aerospace was founded: opening up access to space for everybody once and for all!

Rendering picturing Kistler K-1 during liftoff 📷 Wikipedia

Kistler had been the farthest along and the most technically feasible of all the privately-funded commercial launch vehicle projects of the late 1990s. It was developing the K-1: the world’s first fully-reusable aerospace vehicle, designed for up to 100 flights

Stop a second and think about it: project yourself in the ’90s and try to fandom what you’ve just heard: 100 flights on a fully reusable rocket; come on that’s just madness! Or is it not? Anyway, back to the story… Both stages of the K-1 would have returned to their launch site using parachutes and airbags; the first stage would have flown back to the launch site while the second would have orbited the Earth before coming back (sound familiar? Good intuition because that’s exactly what Starship will do once operational).

From left: Charles W. Mathews (Deputy Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight); Dr. Wernher von Braun (Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center); George Mueller (Associate Administrator for the Office of Manned Space Flight); Samuel Phillips (Director of the Apollo Program) 📷 Wikipedia
Apollo’s leader comes to help

Just to give an idea of how serious the intention inside Kistler was at the time, the CEO was a certain George Muller, leader of the Apollo Program in the ’60s!

At that time Kistler raised around $440 million in funds and the development of their new rocket was well underway when the Asian financial crisis and Iridium bankruptcy scared away investors! A couple of years later, in February 2006, Kistler was purchased by the majority owner of Rocketplane, a competing reusable private spacecraft firm. Later the same year, NASA announced that Rocketplane Kistler had been chosen, along with a certain SpaceX, to develop crew and cargo launch services, also known as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), for the International Space Station. The plan called for demonstration flights between 2008 and 2010. Rocketplane Kistler would have received up to $207 million if they had met all NASA milestones.

SpaceX Falcon 9 side by side Kistler K-1 📷 NBC News
From paradise to hell

In September 2006, Rocketplane Kistler began to miss financial milestones associated with the COTS agreement and requested NASA a 30-day extension on the milestone for completing its $40 million initial financing round. In February 2007, they renegotiated the COTS agreement, promising to raise the $500 million required private funding before the end of May.

By August 2007, they failed to obtain that financing, forcing them to cut their workforce due to financial difficulties, by February 2009 they had laid off most of their employees and ceased all operations! That’s the intriguing and equally sad story about one of the most disrupting companies in the aerospace market of the last couple of decades! No one can imagine where they could be today if things would have gone just slightly in a different direction!

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Filippo Zamprogna

Filippo Zamprogna

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