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Radian pursues stealthy plan for space plane

For years, Renton, Wash.-based Radian Aerospace has been working on a rocket project while holding its cards close to the vest. Now several of the big puzzle pieces have been put together to reveal what Radian’s executives and backers have in mind: a rail-launched space plane that could carry passengers to orbit and back.

The key piece, as reported by Business Insider, is a presentation that Radian CEO Richard Humphrey delivered to potential investors during a virtual conference in June. Citing the presentation, Business Insider said the venture was seeking $20 million in a Series A funding round. The money would fund further development of the orbital launch system, with an eye toward beginning flights to orbit as soon as 2025, Business Insider said.

The video presentation doesn’t appear to be publicly available, and Radian did not respond to my emailed request for more information. In fact, I’ve made inquiries with Radian executives numerous times — by email, by phone and in person at space industry conferences — ever since the venture reported raising $350,000 in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2016.

Despite Radian’s stealthiness, there’s ample evidence that the venture’s plan is more than a pack of PowerPoint slides.

In 2017, for example, Radian struck a deal with the Port of Bremerton to lease a half-acre of land at Bremerton National Airport for a rocket engine test facility. A prototype engine has reportedly gone through many firings, and Radian would like to expand the Bremerton facility.

Radian also is seeking a patent for a concept that calls for launching a winged single-stage-to-orbit craft with an initial boost from a rocket-powered sled on rails. One diagram that’s included in the application shows the plane docking with a space station, shuttle-style. At the end of each mission, the plane would make a horizontal, airplane-style landing on a runway.

Radian says the plane’s design was inspired by Boeing’s concept for a Reusable Aerodynamic Space Vehicle, or RASV, which was proposed in the early 1970s but never built.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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