Rocket Firm Lays Off Workers After Launch Fails

TIMES STAFF WRITER

American Rocket Co., a Camarillo company whose first attempt to launch a 58-foot-tall rocket failed when the rocket caught fire on the launch pad Oct. 5, has laid off about 40 workers since the incident.

But the company is looking for long-term financing and plans to develop and launch a second rocket, said company president James Bennett.

Most of the laid-off workers, about 45% of American Rocket's work force, were hired as the company began flight preparations early this year. After the launch, the firm had no work for them, Bennett said.

The new version of the rocket would build on the lessons the company learned assembling and designing the first rocket, which was destroyed when a faulty liquid oxygen valve led to a fire just as the vehicle was to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

If that launch had succeeded, the American Rocket would have become only the third company to launch a private rocket.

Bennett said the new rocket will probably be simpler to operate and be more marketable to aerospace customers than the first, which was designed to give American Rocket information that would help in developing subsequent models.

Bennett said the company is talking with several potential customers who would pay to place payloads on the new rocket. The original rocket carried experiments for the Defense Department's Strategic Defense Initiative and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Among the changes being considered, Bennett said, is one that could save American Rocket tens of thousands of dollars it must pay the U.S. government for use of a launch pad and tracking facilities. Those costs totaled about $100,000 on launch day alone, Bennett said.

Feeding liquid oxygen into the rocket's motor using a pump--instead of relying upon pressure to force the oxygen into the engine--would be less costly, Bennett said, because pressurizing the liquid oxygen before liftoff uses precious time while the rocket is on the launch pad.

American Rocket might also develop a system for saving a new rocket in case of a fire like the one that destroyed the original.

Like the first rocket, the new one will probably be designed for suborbital flight. And the rocket's propulsion module--essentially the rocket minus the guidance system and the body--could be used to form a multistage orbital rocket.

The first rocket was named the "Koopman Express" for the company's co-founder George Koopman, who died in an auto accident in July.

Bennett said that, like that rocket, "whatever we fly next will have George's name on it."

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