Small Business Reaches for the Stars: Do You Have the Right Stuff?

Who said you have to be a government agency or some huge conglomerate to send people into space? True, NASA has its Space Shuttle, the Air Force its wide variety of missiles and rockets; the Russians, the Chinese and others also have theirs and to round things out, Richard Branson has Virgin Galactic—part of his Virgin Empire—and his pair of tourist-oriented spacecraft named, oddly enough, Spaceship 1 and Spaceship 2. However, there is nothing keeping a plucky entrepreneur from getting in on the next big thing in tourism: Space.

Out in the California desert is the Mojave Spaceport and Civilian Aerospace Test Center, the home of XCOR Aerospace. Founded in 1999, the company is involved in the development and production of inexpensive, reusable rocket-powered horizontal launch vehicles for suborbital and orbital travel and is only the second organization to receive a Reusable Launch Vehicle mission license from the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). With a string of successes that include a line of liquid-fuel rocket engines, composite materials, numerous flights of its rocket-propelled demonstrator, the EZ-Rocket, legislative involvement and various civilian and military-related contracts and development deals, XCOR is moving toward its ultimate goal of putting tourists into space.

It will begin with a two-seat space plane called the Lynx. Designed to offer affordable access to space, the Lynx is powered by clean-burning liquid-fuel engines and is expected to be able to make several flights a day. “We have designed this vehicle to operate much like a commercial aircraft. Its liquid fuel engines will provide the enhanced safety, durability, reliability and maintainability that keep operating costs low,” XCOR CEO Jeff Greason said. “These engines will also minimize the impact of these flights on the environment,” Greason added. “They are fully reusable, burn cleanly, and release fewer particulates than solid fuel or hybrid rocket motors.”

The Lynx will take off like a normal plane, has a top speed of Mach 2 and an operational ceiling of 200,000 feet, nearly 38 miles over the Earth, beyond the stratosphere and into the mesosphere (the third layer of Earth’s atmosphere). This is considered the maximum altitude for conventional aircraft and the minimum altitude for orbital spacecraft. In this region of the atmosphere, temperatures fall as low as -100°C (-146°F) while millions of meteors burn up each day because of the friction with the gas particles found here.

“Lynx will be the ‘Greatest Ride Off Earth,’” said XCOR test pilot, former pilot astronaut and Space Shuttle commander, Col. Rick Searfoss (USAF-Ret.). “The acceleration, the weightlessness, and the view will provide you with an experience that is out of this world. And the best part of it all is that you’ll ride right up front, like a co-pilot, instead of in back, like cargo.”

Lynx Animation Courtesy of XCOR Aerospace 

The Lynx, which will be making flights by 2010, however, is only the starting point. According to Greason, future versions of the space plane will have improved research and commercial capabilities. On the drawing board is a next generation reusable launch vehicle called the Xerus, which will have the capability to reach altitudes of over 60 miles, placing it in the same league as Branson’s commercial spacecraft.

And that is the point. XCOR Aerospace, a small company with about 30 employees is using its technical expertise and a business model that keeps development costs down to take on a major corporate player in one of the most difficult and dangerous fields of human endeavor, space flight. “XCOR’s mission is to radically lower the cost of spaceflight, because affordable access to space for everyone means far more than breathtaking views and the freedom of weightlessness,” said Greason. “It means unlocking the material and energy resources and economic opportunities of our solar system for our children.” Now, I am not saying that your little custom sports equipment shop should go head-to-head with the folks who churn out thousands of Louisville Sluggers every day. However, I am saying that when an opportunity presents itself, when you have a great idea for something new, when you see a poorly-tapped market you can exploit or an opportunity to make a lasting contribution to your field and to society in general; you need to go for it! What you do today may take you to the stars tomorrow.