XCOR Pursues Dream a Step at a Time

For thelast eight years privately held XCOR Aerospace Inc. has taken a slow,methodical approach to achieving its vision for reusable orbital spacetransportation.

"It hasbeen a hard slog and continues to be a hard slog. It's just that we're gettingresults from that slogging," said Jeff Greason, XCOR's president andco-founder. "Every six months we look around and we're a little further along."

Workingfrom its desert base at the Mojave Spaceport and Civilian Aerospace Test Centerin Mojave, Calif., XCOR has focused on research, development andproduction of reusable rocket-powered launch vehicles for horizontal take-offand landings -- initially on suborbital flights, but with an eye towards aneventual capability for orbital launch operations.

Comparinghis return on these technology investments to compound interest in bankingterms, Greason said in an April 12 interview that XCOR started very small andhas made step-by-step progress, first on engines, and then on tanks, and thenon pumps  and valves.

Xerussuborbital vehicle

Now thehardware and funding is coming together to enable the development of the initialsuborbital vehicle, to be known as Xerus, Greason said.

Xerus isenvisioned as a one pilot, one passenger suborbital spacecraft that woulddepart the runway under rocket power and glide back for a runwaylanding, retaining some fuel for approach and touchdown maneuvers. "We havebeen working for some time on that vehicle. It's moving more and more off theback burner onto the front burner," Greason said.

Greasonsaid the company's goal for Xerus operations is to support a set of differentsuborbital markets: Handling suborbital passenger flight, carrying scientificequipment above the Earth's atmosphere and providing microgravity forpayloads. Not necessarily at the same time period, Xerus would also beoutfitted to lob small payloads into Earth orbit, he said.

XCORannounced April 11 that it has been awarded a nearly $100,000 SmallBusiness Innovative Research Phase 1 contract as part of the Air ForceResearch Laboratory Air Vehicle Directorate's Operationally Responsive SpaceAccess Mission. Utilizing government and private funding, XCOR plans to designa simple, all-rocket powered vehicle that will fly low altitude suborbitaldemonstration missions. This vehicle would provide the Air Force with a flyingtest bed to appraise factors that drive operational responsiveness, the XCORpress release stated.

Race trackin the sky

XCOR is also busy at work on liquid oxygen/methane rocket enginetechnology. Test firings of the engine have been carried out in Mojave --conducted as part of a $3.3 million subcontract XCOR has with AlliantTechsystems.

In anotherproject, XCOR Aerospace is actively working on the X-Racer for theRocket Racing League, an aerospace sports and entertainment organizationpromoting rocket-powered aircraft races. These liquid-oxygen- andkerosene-powered vehicles are to be flown by pilots through a 3-D race track inthe sky at various venues throughout the world.

The X-Raceris a very modest technological step beyond XCOR'sEZ-Rocket, Greason said. The piloted EZ-Rocket was the firm's earlytechnology airplane demonstrator for its future vehicles. The EZ-Rocket and itsrocket engines were developed from paper to flight in nine months, taking tothe air 26 times as well as demonstrating a three-hour turnaround timeaccording to the group's Web site: www.xcor.com.

The bigtechnological stretch for the X-Racer is a radical improvement in turnaround time,Greason said. While the EZ-Rocket was designed for 24-hour turnaround, theX-Racer turnaround target is a brisk 10 minutes, he said.

"That's abig stretch. We've done some laboratory demonstrations that convinced us thatkind of turnaround was possible. Nothing we've seen so far has led us to changeour mind about that," Greason added.

Experimentheavy Greason said XCOR Aerospace has grown considerably over the last 18months, with the size of the company doubling to a staff of 35 people. Along withworking through the prospects of getting a new facility built in Mojave, thefirm is on the lookout to add both an aerodynamist as well as an aircraftstructural 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 keyto the way that we do business," he said. Greason said the company takes pridein its approach, which is to deliberately shorten the time between experimentsand developing operational equipment -- a conscious effort to avoid studying newideas to death.

Thatapproach is summarized in XCOR's motto: "first make it work ...and then make itwork better," Greason said.

"We arereally pleased that we can offer good jobs to the local high school graduatesas well as highly trained engineers from all over the country," said AletaJackson, co-founder and manager of the company.

"Now thatwe have the resources to provide good pay and medical benefits, I think we canstop calling ourselves a 'new start.' We are a young aerospace company, and Ihope we continue to use our fresh outlook on everything we do."


RichPournelle, XCOR's director of business development said small aerospace companiesare seeing some encouraging trends for the better. For one, the computer powerneeded to carry out rocket and engine fabrication, including computationalfluid design, is now affordable for small firms.

"The pointis ... you can do significant technical work with a small team," Pournelle saidin an April 12 interview with Space News. "The amount of work that five to 10people in a garage can do nowadays is incredible."

Anotherfavorable trend has emerged within the area of supply chain management. Smallspace companies can have a lean inventory process and don't need to have awarehouse 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 anext-day mail delivery, Pournelle said.

Anothertrend 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 ofthousands 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, butnow things are picking up. In the grand scheme of things, however, the privatespace industry is very new and very young, he said.

"We'vetried to take an understated approach to marketing the company because there'sbeen such a history of companies making wild promises ... and then leaving a bigcrater afterwards," Pournelle said. "We'd like to develop more relationshipswith a lot of the primes, he continued, modeled after the successfulrelationship with Alliant Techsystems.

In lookingout five to 10 years, where does XCOR Aerospace plan to be? "In orbit," isGreason's quick, matter-of-fact response. "I think in the next few years we'regoing to see multiple entrants get suborbital vehicles into service...but thereare steps beyond that. In general, our plan is bigger, higher and faster."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.