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Renowned author, journalist and public speaker Michael Belfiore has been writing about the private space industry since 2004, when he covered the launch of SpaceShipOne, the first private spacecraft, for the New York Post. Since then he has covered space technologies for the New York Times, Reuter’s Wired News, Popular Science and many other publications. His written works include The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs, and Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing. Let’s see what Belfiore had to say to Dr. David Livingston of The Space Show about his most recent feature story of XCOR in Air & Space Smithsonian’s The Lynx’s Leap.[bctt tweet=”Michael Belfiore on XCOR and the space industry”]
Belfiore has been fascinated with XCOR since he covered the launch of Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne in 2004. He happened to stumble upon XCOR while exploring the Mojave Spaceport after all the other journalists had gone home. When he knocked on the door to their building they invited him in and he was pleased to discover a small group of people doing amazing things in space. The charm about XCOR is that “the company is one of the unsung success stories of the commercial space race,” says Belfiore. The company was founded in 1999 by Jeff Greason, Dan DeLong, Aleta Jackson and Doug Jones, four engineers who dreamed of going to space. While they didn’t have the financial backing of bigger companies like Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic, they were able to aggressively pursue government contracts and build the technology required to build a spaceship, piece by piece. In this way they avoided becoming what Greason called a “we’ll-do-anything-for-a-contract sort of shop,” and instead focusing only on contracts that would help them build what they needed for their spaceship. XCOR didn’t have the flare of companies like SpaceX and so Belfiore had been trying to feature the company in a major magazine article for years. The opportunity finally arrived when XCOR revealed plans for the Lynx Mark I flight article in mid-2013. Now that XCOR’s Lynx is finally on the verge of its first space flight, he was able to get XCOR a feature story in Air & Space Smithsonian.
An Intimate Space Flight Experience
It’s no secret that XCOR’s biggest competitor for commercial manned spaceflight is Virgin Galactic’s much televised SpaceShipTwo, an 8-seat vehicle that will allow participants to unbuckle their seat belts and receive a resort-like zero G experience. What Lynx will do differently is provide what Belfiore calls a more “intimate experience.” The commercial passenger will ride in the right hand seat next to the pilot, wearing a pressurized space suit with functioning monitoring instruments on the dashboard. You get to be like “Buzz Aldrin was to Neil Armstrong when they landed on the moon,” says Belfiore, who finds the appeal of a simulated co-pilot experience to be the major draw for flying on the Lynx, but at the end of the day it all boils down to personal preference.
Test Flights on the Horizon
XCOR has a significant track record of successful engine development and flying rocket-powered vehicles and is on the verge of running test flights for the Lynx in 2016. Jeff Greason and his team of engineers are very thorough and are not going to fly early just for PR. While the team is hoping to fly next year, formal shuttle astronaut and test pilot Rick Searfoss ultimately has the last say. “It’s going to be his final word whether he’s going to climb in and hit the button,” says Belfiore.
XCOR has been thinking about Orbital Flight from Day One
XCOR was founded by four engineers who had one goal in mind, design a spacecraft that can carry people into orbit as safe and as cost effective as possible. This has spawned a unique approach of development. Every contract XCOR fulfills, every piece of technology they develop, is done so with the final objective of orbital space flight in mind. What this means is that even though Lynx is designed for suborbital space flight, many of the technologies employed in its design are intended for use in the eventual design of an orbital spacecraft. Lynx may not be directly scaled up into an orbital vehicle, but the technology itself probably will be.
For example, the proprietary piston pump design used in the Lynx was developed as far back as 1999 as a more robust cost effective replacement for the expensive turbo pumps used in today’s spacecraft. It was used in their rocket racer, the EZ-Rocket in 2005, before finally being scaled up for use in Lynx, a suborbital plane, today. XCOR believes piston pumps are the way to go for reusable spacecraft, and it is likely they will scale that same technology up further for orbital spacecraft.
XCOR’s latest contract with United Launch Alliance is for hydrogen powered rocket engines, and they’ve developed the first cryogenic piston pump for liquid hydrogen fuel systems, a technological milestone for orbital spaceflight. It is likely that this engine design will be used for the second stage of their orbital vehicle.
XCOR Moves Operations to Midland, Texas
While Lynx will likely take off from the Mojave, XCOR intends to move their R&D center and flight operations to Midland, Texas. A hostile business climate and tight regulatory environment makes it difficult to continue operating out of California. Texas is offering many incentives including a larger hanger complete with renovations and a lower cost of living, making Midland the idea place for a small company like XCOR to set up shop. XCOR accomplishes extraordinary things on a tight budget with only 40 employees.
Bullish on Space Tourism Industry
Accidents are inevitable, and the space tourism industry is in its nascent stages making it a fragile industry. One major accident could have a huge impact on progress within the industry and cause people to question the activity on the whole. Still Belfiore is optimistic albeit bullish on the subject matter, stating that if everything goes well, space tourism will be a thriving industry. Right now people are signing up to pay $250,000 for Virgin flights and XCOR estimates a buying price of $150,000 for a ride on Lynx.
Catalyst for the Space Industry
Advancements in small satellite arena have caused many people to consider CubeSats and the endless commercial opportunities that come with them to be the catalyst that’s setting off the space industry. They’ve open up space exploration to the masses, and through mediums like Kickstarter, allow anyone to participate in funding the space industry. Belfiore says that while this is all good for the industry as a whole, it is only part of the big picture. The big projects, like SpaceX and Inspiration Mars and Google Lunar X Prize that are also important. Private companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are sending cargo to the International Space Station with new rocket designs. The privatization of launch vehicle design is a huge step in the right direction for the commercialization of space. XCOR’s Lynx could be considered a second generation vehicle which cut the cost of space flight in half when compared with Virgin’s SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo configurations. Once the Lynx Mark I, Mark II and Mark III versions have flown, who knows how much the cost of suborbital flights will be, Belfiore estimates they could get it down to as low as $10,000 within a few years, and that would make space tourism affordable to anyone in the industrial world who has a decent job, and that is a large number of potential customers.