Another Firm Joins the Commercial Space Race
Sunday, March 30, 2008
The race to become the first private company capable of launching paying customers into space got more crowded last week as a small but well-respected California firm announced plans to have a two-seat spacecraft ready within two years.
The mini-ship, built by Mojave-based Xcor Aerospace and designed to fly to the edge of space, is expected to be ready for test flights by 2010, around the time Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic hopes to send its much larger spaceship on its maiden voyage.
More than half a dozen other companies -- most, unlike Xcor, bankrolled by wealthy businessmen, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal -- are building rockets and spacecraft that they hope will capture the imagination of space travelers. Most plan to finish testing their rockets and rocket planes in the next few years, and the Federal Aviation Administration has estimated the market for space tourism to be more than $1 billion a year by 2021.
In announcing his company's plans, Xcor chief executive Jeff Greason revealed last week that his company's spaceship, called the Lynx, will have an unusual but understandably interested partner: the Air Force.
The Air Force recently announced that it awarded Xcor a small-business research contract -- usually between $700,000 and $900,000 -- to demonstrate the capabilities of the spacecraft. The U.S. fleet of space shuttles, which are fixed-wing spacecraft like the Lynx, is scheduled to be retired in 2010, but the Air Force has voiced interest in continuing that technology. The Lynx could help provide a model.
"As I understand their objective, they want to share in the lessons learned during our program," Greason said. "They want to learn about space vehicles that take less notice and less time to prepare for flight, and that's what we're trying to do."
Greason played down the government's financial role during a news conference but said that having the Air Force "show interest in our program is a very validating thing." The company also said that NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force have provided technical assistance.
Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, who is sometimes critical of government efforts to mix commercial and military missions in space, said the Xcor cooperation appears to be useful. She said that the Air Force is eager to find ways to decrease the vulnerability of orbiting satellites and that technology from the Lynx could help with that, as well as reduce the cost of getting to space.
Roughly the size of a small private airplane, the initial Lynx is expected to fly about 38 miles high, and the follow-up version will go up to 63 miles, generally considered the beginning of space. Like most rocket companies aiming for the space tourism market, Xcor plans to create a ship that can enter orbit -- about 130 miles up -- Greason said.
"We decided to make it small because we could, and because there is a market for what it will provide -- a front-row seat into space," he said. "We fully expect to move into larger and more complex vehicles in the future, and to someday send spacecraft into orbit."
The company also plans to make the vehicle fully reusable, an aim of many commercial rocketmakers. It has been working for nine years on building reusable rockets and has flown two different rocket-powered vehicles.
Xcor hopes to make its spaceflights available for considerably less than those by Virgin Galactic, which has taken 85,000 reservations at $200,000 each. Greason said a central mission of his company is to bring down the cost of spaceflight "because affordable access to space for everyone means far more than breathtaking views and the freedom of weightlessness. It means unlocking the material and energy resources and economic opportunities of our solar system."
While the Xcor contract with the Air Force is unusual for a space-tourism rocket company, NASA has entered into substantial contracts with two private companies that are developing rockets and spacecraft that could ferry cargo and, someday, astronauts to and from the international space station.
Other companies working to be the first nongovernment carriers of space tourists include Blue Origin (created by Bezos), Bigelow Aerospace (founded by hotel magnate Robert Bigelow of Las Vegas) and SpaceX (started by Musk). Space Adventures, based in Tysons Corner, has already sent up five tourists in Russian Soyuz capsules.
The emerging private space-travel industry does not have an association -- the companies are very competitive and guard their technology and plans closely. But its progress is being tracked by space enthusiasts, including Kevin Kantola, whose Web site, http:/
Kantola said that while some companies will doubtless fail, some will succeed and turn space travel into "a great vacation or fancy cruise."
"Eventually," he said, "there will be lots of choices and different ways to have the adventure." He also said he expects prices to drop dramatically within a decade, at which point he hopes to take a ride himself.