XCOR Unveils New Suborbital Rocketship
An artist's rendition of XCOR Aerospace's Lynx space plane high above the Earth. Roughly the size of a small private airplane, the craft is designed to make several flights a day into a zero-gravity environment.
Credit: Mike Massee/XCOR

GOLDEN, Colo. — XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif. unveiled plans today for a new entry in the suborbital spaceship business — a rocket-powered space plane to be known as the Lynx.

The Lynx is being designed to carry a pilot and a passenger or payload on flights into suborbital space. Company officials are eyeing 2010 as the date for the inaugural launch of the vehicle.

Lynx is roughly the size of a small private airplane. It would be capable of flying several times a day making use of reusable, non-toxic engines to help keep the space plane's operating costs low, according to company officials

XCOR officials hope to obtain some funding from the Air Vehicles Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to showcase the operationally responsive attributes of Lynx. That Small Business Innovation Research Phase II award is, however, pending successful contract negotiations and sign off by the Government Contracting Officer.

"There is a maximum value of $750,000 for Phase 2 of this contract. But the final amount depends on two things: the outcome of the contract negotiations, and then developing and flying the Lynx, XCOR Aerospace spokesman Doug Graham said. "We have several milestones we will have to meet. This is part of what is being negotiated."

Details regarding the Lynx were made public March 26 at a media briefing held in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Robust passenger market

Lynx is being built by XCOR Aerospace to thrust the roughly 30-person entrepreneurial firm into the burgeoning space tourism market, said Jeff Greason, XCOR's chief executive officer.

"When I look back at what the situation was eight years ago, where we were kind of afraid to say carrying people ... now every new player comes to the game thinking the market's even bigger," Greason told SPACE.com in a March 22 phone interview. "We're still fairly conservative. One of the advantages of doing a small vehicle that flies frequently is that, if the market goes through ups and downs, or takes a little more time to develop, we're not over-exposing ourselves."

Still, Greason added, Lynx should be able to fly plenty of people following the craft's test program. "The passenger market is looking incredibly robust."

Dan DeLong, XCOR's chief engineer, said somewhere between 20 and 50 test flights of Lynx are on tap, along with numerous static engine firings on the ground. A full step-by-step set of taxi tests, runway hops and full-up flights are planned to get the vehicle to a state of operational readiness, he said in a March 21 telephone interview.

"It will be just like a military fighter plane flight test program," DeLong said. The rocket company has already developed the baseline reaction control engines, propulsion hardware needed to steer Lynx at high altitude above Earth, he said.

XCOR Aerospace was founded in 1999. The company's engine and rocket track record includes the first privately built liquid-fueled rocket-powered aircraft, the EZ-Rocket. Also, the group has a contract with the Rocket Racing League to design and build the first generation of X-Racers.

XCOR's test pilot is former shuttle astronaut, Rick Searfoss, who will put the Lynx through a rigorous shakeout program. The vehicle's main propulsion system uses liquid oxygen and kerosene, DeLong said.

A larger roadmap

Along with taking tourists to the edge of space, the Lynx rocket plane is being designed to carry out experiments in microgravity as well, DeLong said. Through block changes to the core vehicle, and by adding an upper-stage to the back of the craft, he said micro-satellites could be lobbed into Earth orbit by an upgrade that would be dubbed the Lynx Mark 2 suborbital vehicle.

DeLong said XCOR Aerospace does not plan to sell Lynx passenger rides directly. Rather, the company would sell blocks of rides to resellers who offer value-added services, he said.

Lynx is seen by XCOR Aerospace as one piece of a larger roadmap of vehicles — a start small and then add performance approach — eventually culminating in a piloted orbital system, Greason said. "We've selected the basket of technologies ... technologies that we believe position us very well for the suborbital market, but also put us on the road for later, higher-performance systems," he explained.

The Lynx 1-class rocket plane is focused more on the passenger space travel market, Greason said. The AFRL funding is intended to be matched by a larger amount of private investment, he said.

The government money "gives us some added confidence and belief that we're on the right track," Greason said.

Regarding added private investment, "we have some of that," Greason said. "We're feeling fairly comfortable ... given the rate at which the money has been coming in lately. If you project it forward, it looks like we should be able to get there," he noted.

How much money is in the bank, contrasted to what's necessary to see the Lynx roll down the runway, is not a number that's available, Greason added. "It's a lot smaller than you think."

Mojave Air and Space Port

Scoping out the Lynx, Greason said, has been underway at XCOR for some three years. A considerable amount of time, energy and money has been devoted to liquid-fuel engine work at the company, he said.

The testing of Lynx, DeLong said, will take place at the Mojave Air and Space Port — a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licensed inland spaceport.

"It is certainly possible that the operating location [for Lynx] will be Mojave ... but we've been approached by a number of other locations that would like for us to operate there. Who knows how that future will play out," Greason observed.

The vehicle performance category is such that it will likely be test flown under the FAA's new experimental permit regime, Greason said. For revenue flights, Lynx would carry a launch license and classified as a suborbital rocket, he said.

Both Greason and DeLong saluted the work of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic enterprise — a commercial, passenger-carrying spaceliner competitor with deep pockets.

"Obviously, Virgin Galactic has really moved out early and helped to make the market ... making more people aware that this is a real thing. And that is all to the good. I wish them every success. In fact, who knows, maybe someday I'll be selling them ships," Greason concluded.

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