Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk must be pretty happy right now. His other major venture, SpaceX, has just succeeded in a monumental first: the first docking of a private spacecraft, the Dragon, to the International Space Station. Up to now, docking a craft, even an unmanned one, has only been accomplished by some big names in the global government business: USA, Russia, Japan, and the European Union.
So, SpaceX was absolutely the first private company to successfully launch a private spacecraft. But they weren't the first to try. That honor goes to a troubled German company from the hometown of Porsche, Stuttgart. A company called OTRAG.
OTRAG (a German acronym that means Orbital Transport and Rockets) was founded way back in 1975 by Lutz Kayser, an aerospace engineer. He got 600 private investors across Europe to help fund his company, and even had aerospace superstar Wernher von Braun as an advisor. What could go wrong?
OTRAG's fundamental idea was (and still is) pretty radical. Instead of building complex, largely hand-assembled rockets as pretty much every launcher today is still built, the OTRAG concept was of many very simple and cheap mass-produced elements that could be combined into larger launch vehicles. The base unit rocket was really, really simple. Looking like a stainless steel pipe, the CRPU (Common Rocket Propulsion unit) was divided into three sections: the oxidizer section, filled with nitric acid and nitrogen tetroxide (the chemicals used to make sure the fuel burn in the vacuum of space), the fuel section, filled with off-the-shelf, regular kerosene, and the engine section.
Instead of complex pumps, the fuel tanks were only filled to 66%, and compressed air did the pushing instead. The fuel and oxidizer would ignite automatically when injected with a little bit of furfuryl alcohol, so no ignition hardware. The rocket motor itself only had a few moving parts, small valves for throttling. That's it. It was simple and could be mass-produced with comparatively low-tech means.
The individual rockets' performance wasn't that great, but that wasn't the point. They'd just gang up enough of them into big bundles that looked like what people going for cigarette smoking records use, and that would get them to orbit.
Technically, the plan seemed pretty good. The problems were of a different nature. Since the beginning of the venture, France and the Soviet Union were opposed to a German rockety program, because of some, um, unpleasant memories of Germans and rockets not too long ago. Sometimes trying and failing to take over the world has long-lasting repercussions, it seems.
OTRAG signed an agreement with the Congolese government to establish a launch facility in 1975. The Soviets weren't crazy about this, so they started some propaganda rumors that the whole thing was a cover-up for German and South African cruise missle development. The stories were picked up in the American press, since the US satellite launching industry wasn't too keen on new competition, anyway.
OTRAG was eventually pressured out of both the Congo and Germany by 1979, and relocated everything— assembly and launch facilities— to the Sahara desert in Libya. While there they finally got some real launches in and achieved excellent results. Fourteen sub-orbital test flights were conducted, demonstrating the workability and reliability of the rockets, as well as confirming the low cost to build the rocket units.
Of course, everything's fun until the dictators get involved. In 1983 Gaddafi's Libyan government confiscated everything: rockets, launchpad, production facilities. Well, everything except the main blueprints and, apparently, any real knowledge of how to run things. Gaddafi really wanted a military rocket/missle operation, and stealing a ready-made one seemed like a great idea. They never did more than a few test launches and after a decade of trying, they finally abandoned the program.
OTRAG shut down in 1987, though the fundamental concept behind it is employed by a California company, Interorbital. According to some forum posts, though, they're not taken too seriously, partially due to a plan to "put the first teenager in space."
Regardless of the threat of horny teens in space, the basic concept behind OTRAG still seems solid. With each rocket unit about the cost of a new Accord (~$25,000) and far simpler to build than an Accord, maybe these funny bundles of tubes are worth a second look?