Love & Rockets

These days, the front door of Beal Aerospace is locked, and knocks go unanswered. Three vehicles dot the otherwise empty parking lot, testifying that there is still life at the headquarters of the defunct satellite launch company. All but a handful of the 200-plus engineers, rocket scientists, and assorted staff have been laid off, and the vacant rows of their parking spaces seem like unmarked graves.

One of the vehicles belongs to a woman who finally comes through the lobby to unlock the front door. She leads you into a bright room dominated by a 20-foot-tall model rocket. Photos line the lobby, shots of a dogleg in a jungle river, a spectacled scientist peering at a machine part, and an aerial photo of Sombrero Island, bare rock surrounded by blue water. All bear the same gruff remark in the corner: "Details of the operations and items shown in this photo are proprietary and confidential and cannot be discussed."

The woman signs you in on a clipboard. The list of visitors is short. "It's so rare anyone comes out here," says the woman, one of the few people still employed at Beal Aerospace.

One of the other surviving employees at the empty facility is corporate counsel David Spoede, who moved his office from the executive upper floors to ground level. What was once his office now houses only file cabinets and loops of wiring unspooling from the ceiling like intestines. Framed maps of South American islands sit against cardboard boxes stuffed with a mix of legal documents and mementos.

The emptiness hits home when you explore the cavernous space where they planned to build rockets. Not just any rockets: rockets powered by the largest engine developed by anyone in the United States since the Apollo space program. The Stage One rocket designed by Beal Aerospace burns three backyard swimming pools of fuel per second.

The abandoned, unsellable equipment stored in the empty warehouse provides some perspective on just how ambitious the project was. In one corner sits a 40-foot cylinder ringed with several hundred half-inch rivet holes, the thrust tube for a Stage Two rocket engine, which couples the second-stage engine to the rocket's body. This piece has seen action, fired during a well-publicized test in McGregor, near Waco.

Some of the equipment is too complicated or confidential to talk about. Other parts are simple, if huge, constructions of bent plywood. These are what engineers use to bend graphite epoxy composite materials to form the body of the rocket. "This is the low side of high tech," Spoede says.

The headquarters of Beal Aerospace in Frisco mirrors its history: hopeful and ambitious birth, thrilling and painful growth, and an early and tragic death. Its empty parking lot and vast vacant warehouse spaces are the remnants of a dream so bold it ranged from Texas to the jungle nation of Guyana to thousands of miles above the planet.

At the heart of this dream is Andrew Beal, self-made billionaire and amateur math genius, one of those rare people who have enough cunning, money, vision, money, ambition, and money to drag his vision into reality. What reality did to Beal's dream is not a lesson in hubris aimed at rich men but rather a warning for any visionary or uber-achiever: The world may not let you change it, and for reasons that may not make sense.

Beal's dream was deceptively simple on its surface: Form a privately held company to launch satellites into space cheaply, using proven technology, without becoming a government contractor. (Cheaply meaning about half of the $50 million to $80 million NASA pays for a comparable launch.)

To do this, one must have a spaceport, a Cape Canaveral for the private sector. Beal endeavored to build his own spaceport somewhere close to the equator, where his rockets could gain momentum from Earth's rapid spin and save on fuel.

It's eminently fair to say Beal's plan was a long shot. That's not to say it had no merit. Each stage of the business plan was backed by logic, reason, and market sense. Satellite launches are prohibitively expensive. The disposable Beal Aerospace rockets were designed to be cheap and effective, thanks to the combination of their simple old-school design and new lighter construction materials. Its rocket fuel was unorthodox but viable. The spaceport could have been built and maintained.

"If anyone was going to do it, it would be someone like Beal. They took him fairly seriously. He was putting most of his bank profits into the project," says aerospace analyst Marco Caceres. "He wasn't wasting a lot of time raising money...People thought he was progressing, that this guy could be up and running in a few years."

Beal Aerospace might have done the impossible: compete against NASA, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin and win. But the tough odds held, and in October 2000, Beal Aerospace, the largest private rocket development effort in history, shut its doors and laid off more than 200 people. Beal had spent $200 million of his own money by that time.

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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo