A former Tulsan has a goal of flying in a true space race – and he wants Tulsa to join him for the ride.
Navy Lt. James Bridenstine, an E-2C and F-18C pilot and Jenks High School graduate, heads one of the three teams that has joined the Rocket Racing League, a first-of-its-kind aerospace sports and entertainment league which combines the competition of racing with the excitement of rocketry.
He would like to base his team in Tulsa and carry the Tulsa name in competitions around the world. Bridenstine plans to meet with Tulsa economic development representatives Jan. 10 and pitch a plan for the city of Tulsa to get behind his cause.
“I have two different things to offer,” he said. “First is the location of the team and name of my team. The second is the name of my rocket and the logos that are painted on the rocket, and that would be a corporate sponsorship.
“So it would be the Tulsa Rocket Racing Team flying the corporate-named rocket. It would be preferable for me to have a sponsorship from a corporation that has a large presence in the city where I am located.
“Wherever I am located, I want the city behind me.”
Up, Up and Away
The Rocket Racing League, established by X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis and two-time Indianapolis 500 champion team partner Granger Whitelaw, aims to debut its first NASCAR-style races in late Fall 2007. The RRL is intended to advance the technology and increase public awareness of space travel, according to its Web site, www.rocketracingleague.com.
The league features rocket-powered aircraft that will be flown by top pilots through a ‘three-dimensional track way’ at venues throughout the world. The virtual racetracks will be displayed to both spectators and pilots.
“Later, the race zone is planned to contain a more expansive volume of airspace stretching to sub-orbital altitudes, and may ultimately evolve into a track that extends beyond that the Web site said.
The RRL has contracted with XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., to design and build the first generation of X-Racers. The X-Racers are based on the design of XCOR’s EZ-Rocket.
The Rocket Racing League has been featured in dozens of media reports including Autoweek, Popular Science, CNN, MSNBC, Forbes, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and ESPN.
The Spirit of Tulsa
Bridenstine is not just coming to Tulsa with his hand out. He has come up with the $1.2 million required to buy a rocket on his own. If not for some shrewd investing in real estate while he was stationed at Naval Air Station Point Mugu northwest of Los Angeles, he might not have been able to form his racing team. He had to liquidate his properties to pursue his rocket racing dream.
“You don’t make that kind of money on a pilot’s salary,” he said.
Bridenstine estimates he will need a little more than $3 million per year to operate his team.
“And that is not including the initial purchase of the rocket,” he said. “That includes the fuel, liquid oxygen, maintenance, a team of individuals who can do the maintenance, the upkeep on the rocket and all the travel budgets.”
“We are talking about a rocket that has only four minutes of burn time, so you cant really fly it from town to town. You have to purchase a truck to haul it, you have to get the ground support equipment and all the tools for maintenance, and you have to have a hangar and support offices.”
Likening his proposal to the City of Tulsa to when Charles Lindbergh approached the City of St. Louis to sponsor him in his 1927 solo transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis, Bridenstine said, “Here we are 80 years later and everybody still knows Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis – this was a phenomenal deal for St. Louis to represent itself as a center of aviation excellence.”
“You had the prize money, and you had a guy with the passion and the desire, and you had a town that was willing to support the guy – and it all worked together.”
“I don’t know what kind of a deal he came to, but that’s the model I am following,” he said.
Bridenstine said he has initiated conversations with Fort Worth and Houston, but that he wanted to make his first presentation to Tulsa.
He and his wife Michelle, part owner and director of public relations for the racing team, are Jenks High School graduates.
“When my wife and I talk about home, we are talking about Tulsa,” he said. “That’s why before I talk with anybody in Fort Worth or Houston, I want to see if there is interest in Tulsa to get me to come there.”
Becoming the Underdog
Bridenstine, who holds degrees in business administration, economics and psychology from Rice University, has been a naval aviator nine years, training as an E-2C pilot and recently transitioning to the F-18C Hornet as a weapons and tactics instructor at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada. He teaches in the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School, which is a sister department to the Top Gun school based at Fallon.
“There are no E-2s at this base, so they gave me a Hornet qualification. I fly a lot with Top Gun guys,” he said.
Bridenstine first learned about the Rocket Racing League when he “was in the naval exchange and looked at the magazine rack and I saw Popular Science (February 2006) with these cool rockets on the cover. I opened up and started reading,” he said. “I was thinking – this is going to be a hit, bigger than NASCAR, bigger than Formula One.”
His efforts to be allowed to form a team were not immediately accepted by the Rocket Racing League. But due to his perseverance and the makeup of his all-volunteer team (visit his website: www.bridenstinerocketracing.com), the league agreed to allow him to compete, he said.
“They were looking for guys who could put forth their own money and sustain endlessly,” he said, and the league told him “you’re not the kind of guy that fits in that category with those individuals; however, you bring us something unique. We will market you as an underdog. If you are willing to let us do that, we are willing to let you race in the first season.”
Brink of Adventure
Bridenstine said he expects to take possession of his Mark-1 X-Racer this summer with the first race in late 2007.
He is understandably excited.
“It’s hard to even put into words,” he said. “I am sitting on the cusp of an adventure that is going to make great strides toward advancing rocket science and space technology with private sector mechanisms.”
“We have an opportunity to continue what NASA has started but do it in the private sector where we don’t have to over-engineer everything,” he said. “We don’t have to hedge against every possible risk. We have the ability to take risks the same as a rock climber or a hang glider, or somebody who does sky diving.”
He said he is part of an “opportunity to go out and advance rocket science and space travel in the private sector. You know the risks. You understand that people could die, but you believe in something bigger than yourself and you want to try – to go for it.” ?