Plasma power: The VX-200 rocket being tested at Ad Astra Rocket Company’s facilities in Houston. The total power produced by the engine is distributed between its two electromagnetic stages; both are firing in the image.
TR: You are developing a propulsion system for deep space missions. What recent advances have you made, and what milestones have you reached?
FCD: We are getting ready to fly the VASIMR engine on the International Space Station (ISS). It is a 200-kilowatt plasma rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built to fly in space, and the prototype is being tested on the ground in our facilities in Houston. We have been gradually ramping up the power over many months, and our goal is to reach 200 kilowatts, which is the power level the rocket will run at on the ISS, and we achieved that today. We actually reached 201 kilowatts. It was a very exciting moment because it happened right when we were in the meeting, and I kept getting text messages.
TR: What is the next step in development of the engine?
FCD: The next step is to actually build the flight unit, which will be ready to launch October 2013. We will install it on the ISS and test it there. After the test is finished, we will use it commercially to reboost the space station [to a higher altitude] to provide the drag compensation. [Currently the ISS requires periodic boosts to get it to the right orbit for space shuttle or Progress dockings.]
TR: Do you have a vehicle for the system after the ISS work?
FCD: We are already in discussions with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, the two companies that already have access to the space station [through contracts with NASA], so we can develop the interface in either one of those vehicles. We will make a decision, selecting one of those two probably at the end of next year.
TR: There are arguments that the private sector needs government money to succeed. How are you handling funding?
FCD: It’s always a struggle to continue to get investment, but the way we do it is by meeting our milestones. The one we met [last week] will give us ammunition to seek more private investment. It would also be nice to have government funding. When we created the company, it was an experiment in NASA privatization, and the premise was that we would privatize the project and let the private sector mature the technology to the point where NASA would pick it up again, and that time has arrived. So we are always looking for a contract from NASA that would alleviate our need for private investment.