I spoke yesterday with Advent Launch Services‘ Jim Akkerman, and he told me that his company has submitted a proposal for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (COTS).

Advent was an X Prize competitor with a methane/liquid oxygen powered vehicle that would launch from the Gulf of Mexico and return to a water landing. FedEx pilot and son of Mercury 7 astronaut Gus Grissom, Scott Grissom, had signed on as the ship’s pilot. But a fire during an engine test in 2003 put the brakes on Akkerman’s X Prize attempt.

Undaunted, Akkerman went back to work on his initial plan for an orbital vehicle, shown here. Working on his NASA pension with donated supplies and work space, Akkerman completed a 20,000 pound thrust methane/LOX engine for the orbital vehicle. NASA’s Stennis Space Center has it now, to test modifications they’re making to allow them to test methane-powered engines as well as hydrogen engines.

Akkerman tells me he built that engine for about 1,500 bucks, hand-crafting the parts for it himself. He was a propulsion engineer at NASA for 36 years before retiring, or “graduating,” as he puts it, in 1999.

He says that to make the COTS requirements, he’ll have to produce an engine that delivers 30,000 pounds of thrust, but he thinks he can boost the pressure on his existing engine to get that.

His connections at NASA have helped him to some degree, as in gaining access to Stennis, though he continues to express the frustration he felt as an engineer there trying to advance cheaper, more efficient designs against bureaucratic inertia. He’s excited about COTS, though, feels it represents real change for the better at NASA.

The tests of Akkerman’s engine at Stennis could begin as early as June, though Akkerman’s not holding his breath, given the glacial pace typical of NASA projects. In the meantime, Akkerman and colleague Glenn Smith, former deputy manager for Space Shuttle Systems Engineering, are at work on their ship’s reaction control system for maneuvering in space.