The Roton Advanced Test Vehicle will only test the landing strategy of the craft, which uses rotary blades in combination with thrusters. The final craft will carry two human pilots and will take off using kerosene-fuelled rockets to deliver satellites into orbit.
A completed Roton will blast into space, release a satellite into low-level orbit and return the same day by summer 2000, said Gary Hudson, president of the Rotary Rocket Company which is building the Roton.
The rotors are only deployed before landing
Rick Tumlinson, president of the Space Frontier Foundation said: "The rollout of the Roton represents the beginning of a new era in access to space. If this project is successful it will open the high frontier not just to astronauts, but for ticket purchasing passengers - and
within a couple of years - not decades."
Techno-thriller novelist Tom Clancy is a Roton investor and said: "It's our job as citizens to make space the place where people work. What opened the West wasn't wagons, it was railroads and Roton is the railroad of the future."
Also among the 1,200-person crowd were NASA chief engineer Daniel Mulville and Patricia Smith, Associate Administrator of Commercial Space Transportation at the US Federal Aviation Authority.
Cutting launch costs
The Roton is 19m (64 feet) high and will deploy the rotor blades during re-entry. Thrusters will be fired 150m (500 feet) above the landing site. The thrusters speed up the blades and make the Roton hover. Tests of the landing system are scheduled to begin in March 1999.
Gary Hudson introduces the Roton
The final version will be about half the weight of a jumbo jetliner and will carry a 3,150kg (7,000 pound) payload into space at 27,200 kph (17,000 mph). Its pilots would be the first privately-funded astronauts.
The Rotary Rocket Company believes that using kerosene fuel, rather than costly liquid hydrogen, will cut launch costs by 90%. The current cost of putting a satellite into space is about $10,000 per pound weight. They hope the Roton will cut the cost to $1,000 per pound.
The company receives no government funding and plans to finish the $130m project with money raised from investors. Customers will pay about $7m per flight, compared
with the current $50m average for satellite launches said Geoffrey Hughes, a Rotary Rocket spokesman.