The Believers

David Gump: Space Pioneer

MISSION // BLAST OFF ON A BUDGET

"I READ A LOT OF SCIENCE FICTION when I was younger but had no intention of a career in space," says David Gump, 55, the cofounder and CEO of Reston, Virginia–based Transformational Space Corporation, or t/Space. Today, the onetime railroad lobbyist is blazing a trail to the solar system with a low-cost plan to launch manned expeditions to the moon and Mars. His far-out proposition: a transportation chain that breaks the trip into stages. First, get astronauts into orbit—the most difficult part of any space voyage—with a reusable rocket-propelled capsule. Next, transfer to a parked spacecraft to make the haul to the moon or Mars.

By breaking from the one-ship model, Gump's strategy makes for a highly efficient R&D process—and saves a bundle. This past spring, his team unveiled a mock-up of their reusable crew-transfer vehicle, the CXV, which can carry four astronauts into orbit for a paltry $20 million per flight (a shuttle flight typically tops $1 billion). Starting in May, he ran a 23-percent-scale prototype through a partial test of the first stage of the launch sequence. (On an actual mission, a jet would release the CXV at 50,000 feet and rockets would then blast the vehicle into orbit.)

Though t/Space now needs to raise $400 million (likely in the form of a NASA contract) to complete a space-ready CXV, Gump is already one giant leap closer to his goal, having demonstrated the potential to get into orbit without breaking the bank. "Once you get off the planet," he notes, "you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system."

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