For the last eight years privately held XCOR Aerospace Inc. has taken a slow, methodical approach to achieving its vision for reusable orbital space transportation.
"It has been a hard slog and continues to be a hard slog. It's just that we're getting results from that slogging," said Jeff Greason, XCOR's president and co-founder. "Every six months we look around and we're a little further along."
Working from its desert base at the Mojave Spaceport and Civilian Aerospace Test Center in Mojave, Calif., XCOR has focused on research, development and production of reusable rocket-powered launch vehicles for horizontal take-off and landings -- initially on suborbital flights, but with an eye towards an eventual capability for orbital launch operations.
Comparing his return on these technology investments to compound interest in banking terms, Greason said in an April 12 interview that XCOR started very small and has made step-by-step progress, first on engines, and then on tanks, and then on pumps and valves.
Xerus suborbital vehicle
Now the hardware and funding is coming together to enable the development of the initial suborbital vehicle, to be known as Xerus, Greason said.
Xerus is envisioned as a one pilot, one passenger suborbital spacecraft that would depart the runway under rocket power and glide back for a runway landing, retaining some fuel for approach and touchdown maneuvers. "We have been working for some time on that vehicle. It's moving more and more off the back burner onto the front burner," Greason said.
Greason said the company's goal for Xerus operations is to support a set of different suborbital markets: Handling suborbital passenger flight, carrying scientific equipment above the Earth's atmosphere and providing microgravity for payloads. Not necessarily at the same time period, Xerus would also be outfitted to lob small payloads into Earth orbit, he said.
XCOR announced April 11 that it has been awarded a nearly $100,000 Small Business Innovative Research Phase 1 contract as part of the Air Force Research Laboratory Air Vehicle Directorate's Operationally Responsive Space Access Mission. Utilizing government and private funding, XCOR plans to design a simple, all-rocket powered vehicle that will fly low altitude suborbital demonstration missions. This vehicle would provide the Air Force with a flying test bed to appraise factors that drive operational responsiveness, the XCOR press release stated.
Race track in the sky
XCOR is also busy at work on liquid oxygen/methane rocket engine technology. Test firings of the engine have been carried out in Mojave -- conducted as part of a $3.3 million subcontract XCOR has with Alliant Techsystems.
In another project, XCOR Aerospace is actively working on the X-Racer for the Rocket Racing League, an aerospace sports and entertainment organization promoting rocket-powered aircraft races. These liquid-oxygen- and kerosene-powered vehicles are to be flown by pilots through a 3-D race track in the sky at various venues throughout the world.
The X-Racer is a very modest technological step beyond XCOR's EZ-Rocket, Greason said. The piloted EZ-Rocket was the firm's early technology airplane demonstrator for its future vehicles. The EZ-Rocket and its rocket engines were developed from paper to flight in nine months, taking to the air 26 times as well as demonstrating a three-hour turnaround time according to the group's Web site: www.xcor.com.
The big technological stretch for the X-Racer is a radical improvement in turnaround time, Greason said. While the EZ-Rocket was designed for 24-hour turnaround, the X-Racer turnaround target is a brisk 10 minutes, he said.
"That's a big stretch. We've done some laboratory demonstrations that convinced us that kind of turnaround was possible. Nothing we've seen so far has led us to change our mind about that," Greason added.
Experiment heavy Greason said XCOR Aerospace has grown considerably over the last 18 months, with the size of the company doubling to a staff of 35 people. Along with working through the prospects of getting a new facility built in Mojave, the firm is on the lookout to add both an aerodynamist as well as an aircraft structural designer, he said.
"Right now, Mojave is just the place to be if you're a company in this emerging industry," Greason said. "We are very 'experiment heavy' and that's continuing to be a key to the way that we do business," he said. Greason said the company takes pride in its approach, which is to deliberately shorten the time between experiments and developing operational equipment -- a conscious effort to avoid studying new ideas to death.
That approach is summarized in XCOR's motto: "first make it work ...and then make it work better," Greason said.
"We are really pleased that we can offer good jobs to the local high school graduates as well as highly trained engineers from all over the country," said Aleta Jackson, co-founder and manager of the company.
"Now that we have the resources to provide good pay and medical benefits, I think we can stop calling ourselves a 'new start.' We are a young aerospace company, and I hope we continue to use our fresh outlook on everything we do."
Rich Pournelle, XCOR's director of business development said small aerospace companies are seeing some encouraging trends for the better. For one, the computer power needed to carry out rocket and engine fabrication, including computational fluid design, is now affordable for small firms.
"The point is ... you can do significant technical work with a small team," Pournelle said in an April 12 interview with Space News. "The amount of work that five to 10 people in a garage can do nowadays is incredible."
Another favorable trend has emerged within the area of supply chain management. Small space companies can have a lean inventory process and don't need to have a warehouse full of parts. Finding a specialty supplier of a needed rocket part -- say a cryogenic valve, for example -- is just a Google search away and a next-day mail delivery, Pournelle said.
Another trend working in favor of small companies stems from the savaging of the U.S. industrial base and the relocation of manufacturing overseas, Pournelle added. Machines, tooling and other hardware that at one time cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said, now can be obtained for pennies on the dollar.
Previously, investment in start-up space companies was spotty at best, Pournelle said, but now things are picking up. In the grand scheme of things, however, the private space industry is very new and very young, he said.
"We've tried to take an understated approach to marketing the company because there's been such a history of companies making wild promises ... and then leaving a big crater afterwards," Pournelle said. "We'd like to develop more relationships with a lot of the primes, he continued, modeled after the successful relationship with Alliant Techsystems.
In looking out five to 10 years, where does XCOR Aerospace plan to be? "In orbit," is Greason's quick, matter-of-fact response. "I think in the next few years we're going to see multiple entrants get suborbital vehicles into service...but there are steps beyond that. In general, our plan is bigger, higher and faster."
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