Coming together. Image Credit: XCOR Aerospace
Coming on the heels of the 10th anniversary lamentation/celebration of SpaceShipOne’s winning the Ansari XPRIZE, an event which saw more than a little criticism aimed at Virgin Galactic for its frequent delays with SpaceShipTwo, the other company racing to introduce a commercial suborbital spaceplane, XCOR, announced major progress in assembly of its Lynx Mark I vehicle.
XCOR Press Release:
Mojave, CA, October 07, 2014 – XCOR Aerospace® today announced marked progress on the path to commercial space flight with the integration of the cockpit to the fuselage on XCOR’s Lynx® spacecraft. With the fuselage, pressure cabin and strakes delivered, XCOR is bonding these structures together and integrating sub-assemblies, such as the landing gear, at its hangar in Mojave.
“The team at XCOR has been working a long time to reach this goal,” said XCOR CEO Jeff Greason. “We always knew there would be a day when we could see a spacecraft forming in our hangar. Today is that day. These pictures show our ongoing journey to make commercial space flight a reality.”
In addition to the progress noted above, Lynx’s rocket propulsion system continues to be tested on a first generation fuselage that is used to perform cold-flows and hot fires with XCOR’s proprietary rocket propellant piston pump technology.
“After 15 years of development, the excitement in the hangar is palpable,” said XCOR President Andrew Nelson. “Teams are working in parallel to finish Lynx. We are hiring shop staff and engineers to prepare for the final stretch leading up to test flights. I’m proud of what the team has accomplished this year.”
The Lynx is a two-seat, piloted space transport vehicle that will take humans and payloads on a half-hour suborbital flight to 100 km (330,000 feet) and then return safely to a landing at the takeoff runway. It is the only fully reusable suborbital spacecraft in production.
End press release
As Innerspace noted yesterday, although Virgin Galactic consistently receives the lion’s share of press attention, much of it self-generated, it is the much quieter XCOR which may be on the better track. A little more on that, and why space enthusiasts should take note. It is about much more than space tourism.
SpaceX ‘s Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic’s over the top flamboyant Richard Branson are both highly visible, outspoken leaders, and both bear the responsibility of running more than one major business at the same time. XCOR’s Jeff Greason is very different individual, more reserved but equally compelling when discussing his passion for the advancement of space exploration. Greason however, an experienced engineer who began his career at Intel, shares with Musk a hands on approach to the technology, and a clear vision for how to evolve it in order to pursue a long term business plan.
There are other similarities as well. Musk and SpaceX began with the smallish Falcon 1 while aiming for Mars. Greason and XCOR began with the EZ-Rocket Plane, which could only fly for a few minutes, but did so 26 times, continued with the more powerful X-Racer which flew 40 times, and are now focused on prototyping routine suborbital operations with the initial Lynx Mark I which is rapidly coming together.
While the Lynx Mark I, which can only each 60 kilometers, will be used as a pathfinder vehicle, both for flight operations and for commercial service, it will quickly be supplanted by the more capable Mark II, which will be able to carry its pilot and single paying passenger (or experimental payload) all the way past the 100 km threshold and the established boundary of sub-orbital “space.” In this case, quickly means just that, less than a year. At the moment, XCOR, through its marketing arm XCOR Space Expeditions lists, with caveats, Q3/Q4 2015 for the Mark I, and 2016 for the Mark II on its website. A Mark III would come next, offering a external research space or an expendable smallsat launcher contained in a dorsal pod. Given the comparatively sober approach taken by the company, it seems that 2015 will in all probability see the first Lynx spaceplane streaking into the sky.
Why it matters. Compared to SpaceShipTwo which is using expendable hybrid motors which mush be changed out after each trip (the oxidizer tank and plumbing remain), the Lynx, powered by four kerosene and liquid oxygen rocket engines, is 100% re-usable. Equally important, although the thrust is very low, roughly 2,900 lbs. per engine, and the final velocity will be nowhere near that required to attain obit, the proprietary piston pump technology which provides the propellant flow, is scalable. Taken together with the fact that the XCOR plan of operations calls for multiple flights per day, literally a “gas and go” approach to first stage rocket flight, embodied in the diminutive spaceplane are the core elements of routine access to low Earth orbit, unimpeded by evolutionary dead ends such as the expendable hybrid motors on SS2, or the completely expendable solid/liquid combination being pursued by Paul Allen’s StratoLaunch.
XCOR is starting at the other end of the fully reusable development pathway being pioneered with SpaceX by beginning with a rapidly re-usable suborbital vehicle while planning to evolve, whereas SpaceX is attempting to evolve the fully expendable Falcon 9 into a recoverable system which could eventually be made to perform “rapidly.” Both have a long way to go, and for XCOR, the path is a little less clear because the Lynx, no matter how many “Marks” follow its name, is not intended as an approach to the much more elusive goal of being a Single Stage To Orbit Vehicle. Another stage, or two, must eventually follow, and there is every reason to believe that it will be air-launched. Greason does have plan, but for now it remains a secret.
XCOR is focused, as well it should be, on getting Lynx to the runway, and then flying it over and over, day after day. That nose to the grindstone approach for proving the viability of commercial spaceflight is in its own way just as significant as SpaceX’s attempt to recover and relaunch the Falcon 9 first stage.
Wherever these two approaches ultimately meet, “X” will mark the spot where the revolution really begins.