Shooting for the Stars, Texan David Hannah Fires Up His Own Private Space Program

updated 07/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The majestic voyage of the space shuttle Columbia last April captured the world's imagination and rekindled everybody's confidence in the government's space program. Well, almost everybody's. Four shuttles will eventually carry scientific gear and even satellites into orbit for private corporations, but some 60 flights planned for the next four years are already booked solid. The waiting list will make future shuttles as hard to board as subways at rush hour. And at $438 a pound, the cargo must fly first-class. Now a group of Texans has decided to take its own shot at space.

On an abandoned airstrip 151 miles south of Houston, in the middle of 3,000 acres of scrubgrass and cactus, these men have built their own launchpad—and they are dead serious about their race for space. The mastermind behind this daring program, David Hannah Jr., 59, says that he and his business partners can put payloads into orbit quicker and cheaper than the government can. "We don't look at it as competing with NASA," he says. "We will be supplementing it."

On July 7 Hannah's company, Space Services, Inc., plans to test-fire its spacecraft, named the Percheron, after a rugged breed of workhorse. On that day the 55-foot-long, kerosene-fueled rocket will be bolted to the launching pad to prevent it from going anywhere while its engine is revved up for 28 seconds, building up 60,000 of its maximum 75,000 pounds of thrust. If that test goes well, the group plans to cut the rocket loose a few months later, shooting it some 20 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, and if that works, a 5,000-mile suborbital test will follow. Then, sometime next year, Hannah hopes to put a commercial payload into orbit with a new rocket. After that the company plans regular flights, servicing industries that want to put satellites into space for communications, surveying or other peaceful reasons. "I think we're going to start a whole new industry," Hannah says. "We're just seeing the beginning right now. Space will open up new avenues—things we haven't even thought of yet. Our Percheron transportation vehicle will be like the Model A automobile in several ways. And," he quips, "it'll always start."

His plan may sound like a Flash Gordon fantasy, but David Hannah is no space cadet. The multimillionaire Houston real estate tycoon has constructed some 12,000 homes in the U.S. and Australia. But Hannah, a devout Presbyterian, hears a higher call. "I feel that our Creator wants us to have the Garden of Eden again," Hannah says. "We are all striving for something good." Feeling that God meant him for nobler things, Hannah was looking for a more meaningful venture than construction in 1979 when he met Gary Hudson, 31, a NASA whiz kid in the field of space industrialization. Hudson told Hannah that a private rocket system could be built for $5 million. That price was too high for Hannah, so the two began whittling away the extras. "We kept cutting until we got it down to a million dollars," Hannah remembers. "I didn't have a million that I could spare at that time, but I told him to go ahead and get started and I'd do what I could."

So, while Hudson built the Percheron in a Sunnyvale, Calif. laboratory, Hannah started raising money. First he kicked in $600,000 of his own. Then, after the rocket was nearly completed, he persuaded other investors, including businessmen, a doctor, a university administrator and a Hong Kong multimillionaire, to help match it. So far the group has spent $1.2 million, but that is just the beginning: They expect to pump $30 million into the project in the next four years. Still, Hannah insists that the investors will quadruple their money within that time, and even the possibility of a failure in the July 7 test doesn't bother him. "If it blows up, we're going to know why it blew up," he says. "And there's going to be somebody to look at it and say, 'Well, I know what happened, so now I can do it better.' "

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