UP, UP AND AWAY

Up to a Point: A 'Space Corvette' in Every Garage

A visit to a private space travel company gives P.J. O’Rourke a look into the future -- and the opportunity to fool around in a rocket ship.

09.06.14 10:45 AM ET

I was in the passenger seat of a small rocket ship when I realized what’s wrong space travel these days: I can’t do it yet. I’m still flying on pokey old Boeings for six hours from Boston to LA. The trip would take 15 minutes at 17,500 mph low earth orbit speed.

Also, rocket ships don’t fly. Or they don’t properly fly the way the rocket ships of Buck Rogers and Captain Video did. Buck and the Captain could use a hayfield with a windsock. A modern rocket blast-off produces so much shockwave commotion that the nearest safe viewpoint at Cape Canaveral is eight miles from the launch pad. That puts the Starbucks a long way from the gate when your rocket ship’s final boarding announcement is made.

Plus current rockets lack anything resembling Buck Rogers’ style. They look like evil corn silos or upright storm sewers or a trio of escaped steroidal church organ pipes wearing party hats.

Furthermore, at the moment, there’s no such thing as a small rocket ship.

The first rocket to reach space, the Nazi V-2 (which transported people only in the sense of transporting them to the next life) was 45 feet high and weighed 27,600 pounds. The 363-foot Saturn V used for the Apollo moon landing was 52 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and almost 15 times her weight. And Lady L, tipping the scales at 225 tons, is no Mary-Kate Olsen. Now NASA is building a new Space Launch System (SLS) that’s even bigger.

All my rocket ship disappointments are the result of there not being enough private companies like XCOR Aerospace. I learned this at the Space Foundation’s annual Colorado Springs Space Symposium exhibit hall, where there was a full-scale mock-up of XCOR’s Lynx that I sat in.

The Lynx’s 30-foot fuselage and 24-foot wingspan would fit in a McMansion garage.  And it’s as prettier than anything a rich car collector has in there now.

The Lynx is soft curving, bob-tailed, compound delta shape with a sharp glance of a cockpit and a pair of ample winglets too beautiful to describe without being sexist, so I wont try. Viewed in profile, they are upside-down mid-section silhouettes of Pippa Middleton leaning over to check your oil.

Alternatively, aerospace author and authority Michael Belfiore saw the Lynx’s sporty form, two seats, and body made from plastic and called it “Space Corvette.”

The Lynx will fly into space. It will take off and land on an ordinary runway. And when this rocket ship leaves earth it will have a pilot at the stick -- not a guy strapped on top of a pillar of high explosives like a mouse duct-taped to a frozen orange juice can with an M-80 under it.

The first flight will probably be early next year, and the first flier will probably be XCOR’s Chief Test Pilot Rick Searfoss, a three-time astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander who knows how the mouse feels.

I went to see the Lynx being built at Mojave Air and Space Port, near Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert. Outside, the XCOR facility is unprepossessing. Inside it’s a Martian hot-rodder’s dream shop.

The XR-5K18, XCOR’s own rocket engine, is fully developed and surprisingly compact – an outdoor gas grill that when lit would blow your patio into the next country with 2,900 foot-pounds of thrust. The Lynx will have four of them.

The XCOR building’s barn doors are rolled open. Another quart-sized rocket engine, with the power of 40 foot-pounds, is being tested on a “tea tray” static platform. There’s a yard of flame the color of hell when Satan is in a good mood and a half-second whack that lets you know just what a foot-pound is. Let’s just say you wouldn’t want to drop 40 of them on your foot.

The Lynx will carry six of these in three redundant pairs to give the pilot control over pitch, yaw, and roll outside the atmosphere.

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The Lynx’s fuselage is being turned on a sort of spit as its all-composite airframe is… I don’t know, basted?

I’m not a tech expert -- I’m a tech fan. The aerospace industry is the Green Bay Packers. I’m up in the stands wearing whatever’s the equivalent of an aerospace cheesehead hat – maybe a motar(circuit)board cap with a fuse for a tassel. I just came to meet the players. (Readers who are authentic techies should consult Michael Belfiore’s excellent article on the Lynx in Air & Space Magazine.)

I interviewed XCOR’s CEO Jeff Greason, President Andrew Nelson, and Chief Engineer Dan Delong. Greason started out at Intel but felt the zero-gravity pull of the rocket macro-process in which he now holds 22 patents. Greason introduced me to DeLong, who helped him found XCOR, saying, “All the ideas around here that work, or don’t work, come from him.”  DeLong has spent 36 years designing, fabricating, and testing space hardware. A decade was devoted to life support on the International Space Station, where it has been much appreciated. And Nelson might the only person on earth (or, soon, in space) who has a BS in electrical engineering and an MBA in finance and has had careers in both guidance systems and investment banking.

The most telling thing about the capitalists privatizing space is that they could be making a lot more money doing something else.

DeLong shrugs. “Baby steps,” he says. “Design a little. Test a little. Try to make a little money.”

XCOR makes some of that money through subcontracting, building complete rocket engines and for propellant and propulsion components. But, says Greason, “We only take work within 30 degrees of our base trajectory.” To translate from Engineerish, that means work that goes in the direction they’re already going.

They’re going for a cheap high, it tempts journalistic flippancy to say. Instead, I’ll say they’re going for a small and simple high.

An example of the small is an ingenious little XCOR-invented three-cylinder pump, based on automotive piston technology, that sends kerosene fuel and liquid oxygen into the rocket engine. Previously a big, fat tank of liquid helium was needed for the task.

An example of the simple is that testing the bearings on this pump would have cost $500 a minute on an engineering firm’s test stand. So XCOR bought a 3-cylinder Triumph motorcycle, installed it’s own bearings in place of the Triumph’s, and one of XCOR’s engineers rode it from Midland, Texas, to Mojave.

There is, of course, cheapness to be considered -- the dollar per kilogram bill for putting a payload into low earth orbit. Greason said that an old-fashioned NASA-type government launch costs between $5000 and $8000 per kilo. SpaceX charges $4000. But space really starts to make business sense at about $1000, and this is where XCOR is headed. At this price, sending your 110-pound daughter into orbit would cost $50,000, which is what you’d otherwise spend on a year of her majoring in Politico-Cultural Stereotype Studies at Swarthmore.

“There are two ways to approach orbit,” said Greason. “You can go orbital and figure out how to reuse the vehicle, or you can make the vehicle reusable and figure out how to go orbital.”

“The Space Shuttle tried to do both at once,” said DeLong.  “It’s a miracle the Shuttle worked.”

Greason said that NASA hadn’t taken into account the maintenance costs per flight for the Space Shuttle, a gigantic airplane “covered in firebrick.”

Several companies are, like XCOR, trying to get people and things into space on reusable vehicles. In fact, it’s been done. In 2004 SpaceShipOne, funded by Microsoft’s Paul Allen, was piloted above the “Karman line” -- the 100-kilometer mark that’s the boundary of space -- twice in two weeks without needing to be rebuilt, thereby winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for doing ditto privately. It cost Paul Allen $25 million to win $10 million, and SpaceShipOne, though reusable, was not reused.

It did, however, lead to Richard Branson’s Bransonsationally publicized Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. But this 6-passenger rocket, like its smaller predecessor, has to be hoisted into the stratosphere by a mother ship, White Knight Two.

WK2 is also being tested at Mojave.  One landed while Andrew Nelson and I were standing outside the XCOR building. It was as complicated as a pair of dragonflies mating in the air but bigger – a 78-foot long, 141-foot wide four-engine jet with two complete fuselages and a dihedral arch of a third wing between them where Sir Richard in his rocket will go.

The Virgin Galactic rocket, once it’s dropped from the WK2 and ignites, uses a hybrid engine – solid fuel boost followed by liquid fuel combustion. Solid fuel makes refueling complex because it’s a solid. Try it with a funnel. The Lynx can be refueled like a car and will be able to fly four times a day.

The Lynx Mark I now being readied won’t technically get you into space.  (A higher-flying, three-passenger Mark II is on its way.) But in the Mark I at 200,000 feet you’ll get the full romance of curvy planet, midnight at noon black sky, and better-than-Nutrisystem weightlessness for a not-unthinkable $95,000. A regular Corvette costs $53,000. And the heck with my kid going to Swarthmore.