by Michelle Tirado
A manned, space-bound vehicle may launch from the Space Coast as early as 2015, and it will not be NASA blasting them off. Nope. It will be XCOR Aerospace, a commercial spaceflight company. And those manning the craft for the most part will not be astronauts; instead, they will be outer space-loving folks shelling out big bucks for the trip of a lifetime.
Last August, the Mojave, CA-based company announced its intent to establish a base on Florida’s East Coast. The plan, depending on demand, also includes setting up a manufacturing and assembly center for its suborbital reusable launch vehicle, called the Lynx Mark II. While XCOR is considering several locations, Kennedy Space Center – because it has all the right stuff, including the infrastructure and a well-trained and job-hungry workforce – just might be the locale it selects.
“We are working very closely with Space Florida and the Kennedy Space Center to establish a base for operations and manufacturing at the Shuttle Landing Facility,” said Andrew Nelson, XCOR’s COO and vice president of business development. “It is still not finalized, but it is moving along.”
From Layoff to Launch
XCOR was founded in 1999 by Jeff Greason, Dan DeLong, Doug Jones and Aleta Jackson. In the late 1990s, the four had worked together as part of the propulsion team at Rotary Rocket, a company that strove to develop a Single-Stage-to-Orbit spacecraft, and were laid off together in 1999.
Three months after getting their pink slips, they decided to start their own rocket company, XCOR. They then purchased the intellectual property of bankrupt Rotary, including the propulsion intellectual property that they had been working on, for pennies on the dollar. Since day one, the company’s vision has been to make access to space more affordable and safer and to speed up the timeline of availability of rockets. Initially, XCOR’s founders worked toward that vision from a small hangar in Mojave. Today, it has more than 50 employees on its payroll and occupies a 10,375 sq. ft. hangar, also in Mojave.
The path to its vision has not been without hurdles. Funding has been a huge one. “We are not supported by the local, neighborhood millionaire like everyone else,” Nelson said.
Add to that a regulatory environment that was unfriendly to commercial space travel companies. It improved greatly with the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 – legislation that provides a definition of a suborbital space passenger vehicle, sets forth a process for licensing commercial space vehicles and gives passengers the right to travel on these vehicles at their own risk.
Nelson said XCOR helped draft and pass this vital legislation. “We were on the frontline, going to congressional districts, meeting with congressmen on Capitol Hill, working with the FAA to help them become more comfortable with this regulatory framework that was needed and working closely with the industry.”
Time, Dedication and Innovation
To say developing the Lynx, the vehicle propelling XCOR’s vision, has been challenging would be an understatement. Among the biggest technical hurdles, as noted by Nelson, was creating an aerodynamic shape that is stable from subsonic speeds up to Mach 4 and developing an engine that can endure tens of thousands of firings. Both, Nelson confirmed, have been resolved. Sure, it took about 11 years to work out these and a few other issues, but as Nelson pointed out, “These are problems that do not lend themselves to tons of money and a short development cycle. You need time, dedication and very innovative people who are thinking outside of the box.”
With an all-composite airframe and powered by a piston pump-fed engine – a first of its kind – the two-seat, piloted Lynx will take people and payloads on a 30-minute suborbital flight to 330,000 feet. It will launch horizontally and land horizontally from the same runway, and it will be able to do so up to four times a day.
A round-trip ticket costs $95,000, which includes G-Force training at an XCOR base, and the company plans to have several. Sure, it is an immense sum and probably
too much for the average Joe, yet it is a real bargain compared to the $450 million paid to send astronauts into orbit on a Space Shuttle.
Get Your Reservations In
Even though the Lynx is still a few years from being fully operational, Bryan Campen, XCOR’s director of media and public relations, confirmed it has accepted 220 reservations. These future passengers include investors, such as Esther Dyson, and Chicago Cubs’ owner Pete Ricketts, as well as celebrities like Koichi Iwaki, a Japanese movie star and spokesman for watch company Luminox. In January, United Kingdom-based Unilever Group and Space Expedition Corporation purchased 22 flight tickets.
Even if they can afford the price tag, not everyone will be allowed to board the Lynx. Nelson said people with disabilities, especially spinal problems, and pregnant women will be turned away. In fact, a pre-flight medical screening is required and is included in the cost of the fare. While there is no maximum age, the minimum is 18 (because the passenger is required to give “informed consent”). A permission slip signed by a parent will not do.
In March, XCOR began test firing its full piston pump-powered rocket engine. It successfully ran for 67 seconds, with the propulsion system mated to the flight weight Lynx fuselage. The next test sequence will extend the engine run time to the full powered flight duration. Campen said test flights should commence this year. They will be piloted by Col. Rick Searfoss, who has flown three shuttle missions and commanded one of those missions. “Many of our engineers and staff will be on flights as the program progresses,” he added.
If XCOR does establish a base on the Space Coast, it will begin some “pathfinder flights” with the Lynx Mark I prototype from the Shuttle Landing Facility in 2015. Essentially, it would fly a series of flights for commercial passengers, mainly from the scientific community and government sector. “That would help us establish the operation framework for how we would fly out of the Kennedy Space Center. About nine months later, we would establish a permanent operations base,” Nelson said.
What will this mean for the Space Coast? For starters, it will create more than 150 jobs. Then there will be the economic impact from the tourists that will come to take a Lynx flight and the tourists that come to watch the crafts launch and land. For Brevard County residents, it will no doubt bring back the goose bumps that faded when the Shuttle Program ended.
Headquarters: Mojave, CA
CEO: Jeff Greason
No. of Employees: 50+