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Lynx illustration
XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx suborbital vehicle could begin flights in 2010, challenging Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. (credit: Mike Massee/XCOR)

One size may not fit all

For the last few years, commercial suborbital spaceflight has been virtually synonymous with a single company: Virgin Galactic. The technical brilliance of Scaled Composites and Burt Rutan, as demonstrated by SpaceShipOne and many other aerospace projects, coupled with the marketing expertise of Virgin, made Virgin Galactic the clear leader in the emerging suborbital market for tourism and other applications. As recently as January, hundreds swarmed a Virgin Galactic media event in New York where the company unveiled the designs of SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two.

That mindshare dominance, though, is being challenged. As the schedule for SpaceShipTwo slips, it provides an opportunity for other companies to gain a better footing in the market, and possibly even try to enter service before Virgin. Last week XCOR Aerospace made its latest move into the suborbital spaceflight market, announcing a vehicle, dubbed Lynx, that could enter service within two years. The efforts of XCOR and others are resulting in a wide diversity of vehicles, leaving it up to the market to determine which one—or ones—work best.

Minimal spaceship

XCOR’s initial foray into the suborbital vehicle market dates back to 2002, when the company unveiled plans in cooperation with Space Adventures for a vehicle called Xerus. The rocket-powered spaceplane would take off from a runway, climb to an altitude of 100 kilometers, then glide back to a runway landing. XCOR featured Xerus prominently on its web site, and even obtained an FAA launch license for an intermediate technology demonstration vehicle in 2004, but in recent years the project faded into the background as the company built up its reputation as a developer of rocket engines.

“The Lynx is the smallest step forward we can take. If I could figure out how to carry half a passenger, I’d make the vehicle even smaller,” Greason said.

However, XCOR had continued to work on the concept, adjusting the design until eventually it became a different vehicle. “What happened is that three years ago, the design evolution just kind of gradually evolved to the point where we looked around and said, ‘You know, this really isn’t the same ship any more,’” Jeff Greason, XCOR president, said at a March 26 press conference in Beverly Hills, California, where the new design was unveiled.

XCOR had kept that work under wraps, but several factors led the company to unveil the design, including the award of an Air Force Research Laboratory Phase 2 SBIR contract to demonstrate the “operationally responsive” features of the vehicle. XCOR chief engineer Dan DeLong, speaking March 28 at the Space Access ’08 conference in Phoenix, said that several other factors also played a role, including the maturation of the vehicle’s design, its schedule, and a recent NASA request for information for suborbital flight services to which the company planned to respond.

Lynx is at first glance similar in technical approach and concept of operations as the old Xerus. The two-seat Lynx also takes off from a runway under rocket power (most likely four liquid oxygen/kerosene engines that are derivatives of existing XCOR-developed engines), climbs to a peak altitude, and glides back home. The shape of the vehicle has changed somewhat though: the canards on Xerus have been removed, and the nose has been modified to give it a “duck bill” shape similar to that on the BOR-4, a Soviet spaceplane prototype. The peak altitude has also been reduced to just over 60 kilometers, below most common definitions of the “boundary” of space but still high enough to provide a good view of the Earth and also permit a couple minutes of weightlessness.

The relatively small size and low performance of Lynx was a deliberate decision by XCOR to manage the challenges of vehicle development. “The Lynx is the smallest step forward we can take. If I could figure out how to carry half a passenger, I’d make the vehicle even smaller,” Greason said. “We think it makes a lot more sense, both technically and financially, to start small and grow than it does to spend large sums of money before the market is mature.”

The sum of money that XCOR needs to spend is relatively modest: DeLong said that XCOR has spent about $7 million on the Lynx development to date, and expected to spend about $9 million more to complete the project. XCOR hasn’t raised all the money needed, but company officials are confident that, given current trends, it’s only a matter of time before the financing of Lynx is closed. “We haven’t closed all the investment we need right now. What I can say about that is that the last few months have been very promising, and if money keeps coming in at the rate that it has been, we should have no trouble making it,” Greason said.

Once Lynx is built, the company plans a rigorous flight test program. Rick Searfoss, a former NASA astronaut who is now XCOR’s chief test pilot, described an incremental test program that will start with simple runway hops followed by a series of subsonic test flights before the company attempts to break the sound barrier and then, finally, perform a complete flight profile. “I could easily see a 50 to 70 to 100 flight program in the flight test, which is very doable with this kind of architecture,” he said. Greason declined to give a detailed schedule for the test flights, but said he would be “surprised if it is very radically different from a year, year and a half.”

Lynx is designed to maximize operability, and once it enters service it could fly up to four times in a single day. “That high flight rate is critically important,” Greason said. “That high flight rate allows us to do a much smaller vehicle with a single passenger and still fly as many people as you could with a larger vehicle that flew less often.”

“I honestly think that the difference between where we are now and a functional vehicle that takes a person to 100 kilometers is only about $2 million in investment” plus another $1 million for a 100-flight test program.

XCOR, though, doesn’t plan to operate the Lynx itself commercially, instead signing agreements with operators who would package the Lynx flights with training and other activities to sell to individual customers. Greason said that XCOR was in “quite advanced discussions” with one operator and has talked with several others. Since the operators will be selling the flights, Greason couldn’t give a per ticket cost, but he anticipated that the vehicle’s operating costs would permit ticket prices “roughly half of what our competitors are promising,” or on the order of $100,000 each.

While Lynx is the company’s first step towards routine, low-cost spaceflight, it’s far from the last. XCOR is already planning a more powerful “Mark 2” version of Lynx capable of flying higher and faster. That version would also feature external hardpoints that would allow it to carry an expendable upper stage for launching nanosatellites into orbit. DeLong said the Mark 2 version would cost an additional $12 million to develop, and could be ready as soon as 12–18 months after the original Lynx is completed.

Greason also said that they selected particular technical approaches because they believe they will also be applicable to eventual flight. “We did not dream up this design in a vacuum,” he said. “Orbital flight is where we want to go.”

John Carmack
John Carmack provides an update about Armadillo Aerospace during the Space Access ’08 conference in Phoenix on March 28. (credit: J. Foust)

Other developments

While XCOR got its share of media attention last week, it’s not the only company in this field making recent progress. Armadillo Aerospace, best known for its efforts to win the Lunar Lander Challenge at the last two X Prize Cups, has its own plans for suborbital vehicles. Last month Armadillo released illustrations of its concept, colloquially known as the “six pack” because it features six of its propulsion modules connected together. On top of the modules is a clear sphere that can accommodate a single passenger—the vehicle is piloted from the ground—for a vertical takeoff to 100 kilometers, followed by a vertical landing.

“I still do think that the big prospect is the suborbital tourism market,” Armadillo founder John Carmack said at the Space Access conference on March 28. “I honestly think that the difference between where we are now and a functional vehicle that takes a person to 100 kilometers is only about $2 million in investment” plus another $1 million for a 100-flight test program. “We think that’s kind of reasonable.”

Where Armadillo is now is continuing its development work, including preparing to test a four-module vehicle. Armadillo is also still digesting the lessons learned from last October’s X Prize Cup, when the team went in confident that it would win at least the Level 1 part of the competition, only to suffer a series of technical problems (see “Hard start, tough finish”, The Space Review, October 29, 2007). “It would have taken bad luck for us not to win in 2007,” Carmack said. “And we didn’t win. We took three vehicles in and we came back with three wrecked engines.”

“We can’t say with absolute certainly what all the issues are,” he said. Some of the hard starts Armadillo’s engines suffered were probably caused by changes in the operating environment, including the speed at which the vehicles were turned around for the return leg. “We thought we were right on the knife edge and one of those things—operating five minutes faster or one psi less pressure—might have been something that pushed us over the edge there.” The engine that failed in the final flight attempt at the Cup may have suffered from some kind of assembly error, he added.

“We don’t have the billionaire celebrity global media star branding at the top of our masthead, therefore, other global brands don’t have to compete with their vehicle provider,” said Rocketplane Global’s Lauer.

While the Lunar Lander Challenge has provided Armadillo with publicity, it has also been a source of frustration, particularly because the team flew a Level 1-winning profile—in June, at the Oklahoma Spaceport. “In many ways, the way the Lunar Lander Challenge has been run has been a detriment for us,” Carmack said. The competition schedule forces them to decide whether to hold off on technical improvements lest they not be ready by the time the next competition rolls around. “The once-a-year, in-front-of-a-crowd arrangement is almost the worst possible thing for a technical development challenge.”

“I’m hesitant to make any scheduling guesses on this, because here we are with year eight for Armadillo and we certainly thought we’d be further along, but we have a good handle on a lot of problems we didn’t even know existed early on,” Carmack said. “Progress is continuous.” However, he said he believes Armadillo has a chance to beat Virgin to market. “The SpaceShipTwo schedule has been slipping as fast as time goes by. I still think we’ve got every chance in the world of perhaps coming out and scooping” SpaceShipTwo.

Rocketplane Global, meanwhile, is working to keep up. The company, once a subsidiary of Rocketplane Inc., is now an independent firm. “When Rocketplane and Kistler merged, there were good reasons for it,” Rocketplane Global vice president Chuck Lauer said at the Space Access conference on March 29. Once Rocketplane Kistler lost its funded COTS agreement with NASA last fall, though, “we felt we needed to separate the two companies back and get to a situation where the suborbital program could stand on its own.”

Rocketplane Global is continuing development of the XP suborbital vehicle, a revised design of which was unveiled last October. “Our marketing strategy is to put the customer first, to allow the customers to develop their own spaceflight experiences,” Lauer said. The company is pushing a charter flight business model, selling flights to reality TV shows and corporations that want a unique branding experience. Those charter flight customers have ranged from Microsoft to Nestle France to Bindass, a new Indian TV network. The company has also signed an agreement with First Advantage, a Japanese company, to provide charter flights for space weddings.

In that market, Rocketplane’s relative anonymity is an advantage. “We don’t have the billionaire celebrity global media star branding at the top of our masthead, therefore, other global brands don’t have to compete with their vehicle provider,” said Lauer. “We provide a blank canvas for our corporate customers to be able to write their own message.”

As for when the XP will be ready to fly, contingent on the company’s ability to raise the money needed to develop the vehicle, “we’re in the same ballpark as Virgin,” Lauer said. “We’re all in that 2010–2011 timeframe.”

An emerging horse race

As Lauer suggested, it currently appears that in a couple of years, four companies—Armadillo, Rocketplane, Virgin, and XCOR—could have vehicles in or about to enter commercial service. (There’s also the possibility of a fifth company, Blue Origin; the highly-secretive company has offered few details about when and how it will enter the commercial suborbital spaceflight market.) Moreover, while a year ago most agreed that Virgin would be first to market, now it is possible that one or more competitors might get there before SpaceShipTwo is ready.

“Quietly, this has turned into a horse race,” said conference organizer Henry Vanderbilt during a wrap-up panel at the conclusion of the Space Access conference. “There are a lot of people who could be the first to fly a passenger to suborbit at this point. Two years ago I’m sure the money would have been on Virgin Galactic. It isn’t necessarily so at this point.”

“Quietly, this has turned into a horse race,” said conference organizer Henry Vanderbilt. “Two years ago I’m sure the money would have been on Virgin Galactic. It isn’t necessarily so at this point.”

“What struck me about the events of this week was that we have finally, with all due respect, broken the mystique of Burt [Rutan],” Rand Simberg, an aerospace engineer and blogger, said. “He has had setbacks”—referring to the engine test accident last July that killed three Scaled Composites employees—“and, this week, now he has a competitor.” The growing awareness of companies other than Virgin “is going to be very good for the industry.”

“This perception of a horse race is probably a really, really good thing for investment,” said Joe Pistritto, an angel investor. “Ninety-nine percent of the people who could invest in this industry don’t know about this industry” but may start to learn about it as they find out about these competing companies.

If it is a horse race, who will win the ultimate prize: not just the first vehicle to enter the market, but the one that wins the market in the long run? The diversity of technical approaches, from the takeoff and landing techniques to the number of passengers, makes any predictions difficult. “If there’s four different operators flying people into space, their offerings are going to be a little different,” said Pistritto. “So you see an actual segmentation of the market around the experience you want, how much money you have, and where you are.”

“I don’t think one of these or the other is going to be the only way to go,” Greason said when asked to compare Lynx with SpaceShipTwo. “I think there is going to be multiple entrants into this market. I think we bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table. I think the different experiences people are going to have on these ships are different enough that some people may prefer one over the other, or maybe both will coexist. Only the marketplace can tell us how that’s going to evolve.”

“I get asked who’s going to be first in the marketplace question a lot,” he added. “I’m not that interested. Yeah, it’s always nice to be first, but it’s better to be right.”