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Trump’s Pick For NASA’s New Administrator Used to Own a Rocket Racing Team

It was meant to be NASCAR for rockets, but it never took off. Gotta go fast.

Samantha Cole

Image: Edibobb/Wikimedia Commons

Trump tapped Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma to fill the role of NASA administrator. Unlike NASA administrators of the past, Bridenstine—a climate change denier, former fighter pilot, and moon lover—doesn't have any science education or background. But boy, does he love planes.

He owned a team in the short-lived Rocket League Racing (not to be confused with Motherboard's best game of 2015, Rocket League), the brainchild of a bunch of rich guys who just wanted to see some stuff go real fast. "Rocket" might be a slight misnomer in this case: They were rocket-powered planes, with a thruster modified to the back burning liquid oxygen and ethanol. A combination of Top Gun and Days of Thunder, RRL organizers dreamed of being the NASCAR of the skies.

It was meant to be a "21st Century, action-packed, and extremely unique entertainment sports league that combines the exhilaration of motorsport racing with the thunder of rocket power," according to the Rocket Racing Association website, the parent owner of the RRL. It was founded in 2005 by X Prize founder Peter Diamandis and entrepreneur Granger Whitelaw, and gained the support of entrepreneurs like Bill Koch and Robert Weiss. Diamandis likened it to Star Wars pod racing from Episode I - The Phantom Menace, which probably would have been accurate, if a race ever actually happened.

Bridenstine spoke about his involvement with RRL in an interview with This Land, framing it as an investment toward advancing private spaceflight technology:

"You raise money by racing them, so your revenue streams are ticket sales, merchandising, television rights, corporate sponsorships, and video gaming. And from those revenue streams you can advance rocket science and space technology and you can do it in a race environment."

As part of a required financial disclosure from the House of Representatives, This Land notes that in order to buy in on RRL, he made an investment that was, in his words, "not that big." They report that it was somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000—he sold four houses and a five-acre ranchette to do it.

In light of Trump's pick for head of NASA, let's take a look at Bridenstine's ill-fated hobby.

The rocket planes were absurd and sick

These giant toy rockets looked goofy as hell with their canard-style wings sticking straight out from a stubby body, but they were deceptively powerful. The Mark-II and Mark-III X-Racers were demonstration vehicles RRL developed by 2010, near the end of the league's short life. With a rocket delivering more that 2,000 pounds of thrust, and could reach 300 mph. A series of switches in the cockpit flicked the boosters on during takeoff and mid-air.

The races were designed to be absurdly ambitious

The plan, according to a 2006 Popular Science article, was to make races last for about an hour, flying around a two mile long "track" 5,000 feet in the air while spectators gawked from the ground. Pilots would follow the track using a helmet-mounted augmented reality display, and the audience could follow along with their phones or tablets. A gaming aspect would allow them to race virtual planes against real ones, in real time. It was all very F-Zero X .

Rocket teams were standing by to fly

In 2008, there were six teams in the league: Rocket Star Racing, Team Extreme Rocket Racing, Beyond Gravity Rocket Racing, Bridenstine Rocket Racing, Santa Fe Racing, and Thunderhawk Rocket Racing. These are all real names made up by adults, not Pokémon plot points.

But RRL had trouble coming up with the cash

The league started building hangars near Las Cruces, New Mexico—adjacent to Diamandis' pal Richard Branson's Spaceport America complex. Like the Virgin Galactic Spaceport, RRL promised big things to New Mexico and delivered little, building only 80 percent of the hangars before the state's Construction Industries Division ordered progress halted in January 2009, because of a dispute regarding firewalls required in the hangars. RRL also made $12,000 worth of lease payments on the land eight months late—a move I might try with my landlord sometime.

Bridenstine's hometown hosted the first RRL airshow

By July 2009, the RRL closed a $5.5 million dollar financing round led by Bill Koch, and a year later debuted its two new X-Racers at an airshow fete. The setting: Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Bridenstine was Executive Director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum. Oklahoma isn't exactly known for its rich aerospace history, but Bridenstine owned a race team and in Tulsa they would race. He was also working to get a retired orbiter on display in Tulsa as the Space Shuttle program ended, competing with cities like Cape Canaveral and New York to host a piece of space exploration history. Urged along by Bridenstine, the city slapped together the QuikTrip Air and Rocket Racing Show in just a few months' time, where the X-Racers would fly.

Two years later, he would be elected to Congress. "We really think that this has an opportunity to transform our city," Bridenstine told The Space Review before the airshow. "What I would like to see is the Rocket Racing League have an annual race right here in the city of Tulsa."

A yearly race—or any race—would never happen

Despite the Tulsa air show that drew a crowd of 40,000 people and displayed the X-Racers (albeit in short bursts, due to technical difficulties in the air), financial problems followed the RRL, and the league stopped making headlines—or progress, it seemed—shortly after.

In a 2014 interview with Space News, Bridenstine said the RRL was simply "before its time" and the outlet says it "failed to take off."

What happened between the 2010 airshow in Tulsa and Bridenstine deeming the league essentially defunct is unclear. The league's plans involved competitive racing by 2012, according to several reports at the time, but none of this came to fruition. I reached out to Diamandis but haven't heard back, and the email listed on the still-live website for the Rocket Racing Association, copyrighted 2016, returns an "address not found" error.