Artist concept of an XCOR Lynx spaceplane. Credit: XCOR Aerospace

PHOENIX — As XCOR Aerospace prepares to begin flight tests of its Lynx suborbital vehicle later this year, the company has completed an initial conceptual design of a follow-on orbital reusable launch vehicle.

“The concept design is done. I know what the approach is, I can put the numbers together,” XCOR Chief Executive Jeff Greason said during a presentation at the Space Access ’13 conference here April 13. The company, he said, completed that conceptual design in the last few months, although it has yet to develop a more detailed design of the proposed vehicle.

The vehicle concept, Greason said, uses an existing but unidentified aircraft and two rocket-powered reusable stages. The upper stage will likely use a liquid hydrogen engine, he added, a technology that the company has only recently started to work with. XCOR has, in the past, avoided the use of liquid hydrogen fuel in favor of alternatives such as kerosene because of the complexities of handling the cryogenic fuel, but Greason said the performance benefits hydrogen offers for an orbital vehicle outweigh those concerns.

“For an orbital vehicle, if we have to add six to eight hours to the turnaround time to get half the mass, this is starting to look like a pretty good trade,” he said.

Greason revealed few other details about his company’s orbital vehicle concept or the timetable for its development, but did note it has a planned price of $1 million per person. At that price point, he believes that there will be sufficient commercial interest to make the vehicle financially viable.

“To me, that’s kind of the magic number,” he said, noting that Richard Garriott raised several million dollars to perform experiments on his flight to the international space station in 2008. “I’m pretty confident that, at a million dollars, going to orbit is like going to an offshore oil rig. People will pay you to do it because they need the labor on orbit to do things.”

XCOR’s near-term focus, though, is on its Lynx suborbital spaceplane. The prototype Mark 1 version of the Lynx is nearing completion at XCOR’s Mojave, Calif., facility. The company had stated last year it planned to begin test flights before the end of 2012, but Greason said it now anticipates beginning tests in the second half of this year. Those delays are not due to any particular issue with the vehicle, he said, but instead with getting all the components of the vehicle finalized and assembled.

The experience XCOR gains with the Lynx vehicle will support its future orbital vehicle. “Suborbital to us has always been a steppingstone to our vision of what the orbital system was going to look like,” he said, citing the learning experience of flying a vehicle frequently. “We did not see how we could ever develop an orbital system without first having gotten so many flights under our belt.”

Another upcoming milestone for XCOR is the company’s impending move to Midland, Texas. Last year the company signed an agreement with the Midland Development Corp. to move its headquarters to the west Texas city, establishing a commercial space research and development center at the Midland International Airport. XCOR will lease a 5,600-square-meter hangar currently being renovated at the airport.

The timing of the move, Greason said, depends on several factors. The Midland airport needs to get a launch site operator, or spaceport, license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and XCOR needs to begin flight tests of Lynx. Those factors, he said, make it difficult to give a specific schedule for moving the company’s operations to Midland.

The decision to move to Midland, Greason said, was prompted by difficulties doing business in California. In particular, the company needed to expand its current facilities at the Mojave Air and Space Port but could not find a commercial lender in the state willing to finance the construction of a new building there.

“I love Mojave,” he said. “If Mojave was not in California the question [of moving] would never have arisen.”



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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...