Approximately one year from now, XCOR Aerospace plans to begin conducting test flights of the Lynx Suborbital Spacecraft from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, where the company is based. The Lynx, powered by four liquid oxygen and kerosene-fueled engines, is designed to take off and land horizontally as it carries tourists and research payloads to the edge of space.

Lynx is the third rocket-powered vehicle built by XCOR Aerospace. In 2001, test pilot Dick Rutan conducted the first flight of the single-seat EZ-Rocket, a modified version of the Rutan Long-EZ aircraft designed by his brother, Burt Rutan. XCOR Aerospace engineers replaced the Rutan Long-EZ aircraft’s propeller with a liquid-fueled rocket engine. Later, XCOR engineers added a second rocket engine to power the EZ-Racer. In 2007, another XCOR Aerospace vehicle, the X-Racer, flew for the first time. XCOR built the two-seat X-Racer for the Rocket Racing League, an organization based in Orlando, Fla., that seeks to promote rocket plane competitions.

As an XCOR program manager, Khaki McKee oversees contracts related to the firm’s government work and writes many of its technical reports, marketing materials and proposals. One of those government customers is NASA. In August, NASA announced plans to spend $10 million to send research payloads on seven suborbital aircraft. NASA plans to fly experiments on suborbital vehicles built by XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, Near Space Corp., Masten Space Systems, UP Aerospace, Virgin Galactic and Whittinghill Aerospace. In addition, the Southwest Research Institute purchased six Lynx flights for its researchers to conduct experiments.

McKee spoke with Space News correspondent Debra Werner.


What’s the status of the Lynx?

The main engine, the XR-5K18, has been developed. We are test firing the full-scale engine. We are starting to put together the airframe and assembling some of the larger components. Those will be tested separately.

We plan to begin flight test operations by the fourth quarter of 2012, around this time next year. So it’s coming together. We are very happy with the progress.


What will the Lynx offer passengers?

The Federal Aviation Administration does not call them passengers; they are spaceflight participants. Lynx will take spaceflight participants into the upper reaches of the atmosphere where they can look down and see the curvature of the Earth. If they are coming from Mojave, they will be able to see the Pacific Ocean, the Grand Canyon and Baja California. They will be able to get a view of the Earth from space.

Lynx takes off from a runway like an airplane. It has four rocket engines in the back. It’s a very quick vertical ascent. It reaches apogee, 200,000 feet, or about 60 kilometers, in just over four minutes. It goes up at Mach 2 and the engines go off after about three minutes. The aircraft spends a minute or so in a microgravity environment then re-enters the atmosphere at about four Gs. Rick Searfoss, our chief test pilot and former space shuttle commander, said, “After that, it’s a long glide back home.” All told, it’s about 45 minutes once the doors are closed and the spaceflight participant is sitting on the runway.


Have people signed up to fly?

Yes. We have over 100 orders.


Will you also carry payload experiments?

Yes. Lynx is a two-seater. It will carry a pilot and another person or a pilot and a payload. We have four places in the Lynx where you can put payloads of varying sizes, but the primary payload space is next to the pilot in the right seat. If there is no spaceflight participant, the right seat comes out and we replace it with a 48-centimeter rack from shuttle middeck lockers. There is also a smaller, irregular space behind the pilot’s seat.


Is there also a payload space on top of the spacecraft?

That is further down the line, probably on the Mark 2 vehicle. At least, the capability to launch nanosatellites will be limited to the Mark 2 vehicle. Those nanosatellites will only be launched from U.S. spaceports, not overseas spaceports.


What types of payload experiments will you carry?

The market is very broad. We have researchers who want to do experiments in life sciences, biomedicine, Earth science, planetary science, atmospheric studies and solar physics.

We also will have customers who are students. Right now there are not many opportunities within a student budget or a student grant budget to be able to fly an experiment. Our vehicle will offer many opportunities for students to fly experiments.


What will it cost to fly a person or an experiment on Lynx?

The price for a spaceflight participant is about $95,000. Right now, we have researchers who want to fly with their payloads. That’s about the same price as a spaceflight participant.

We also have space in the back of the plane on the port and starboard side for a double cubesat. Something like that would cost about $5,000. It will vary. A microsatellite launch from the Mark 2 vehicle would cost about $1 million. Those are standard prices. Additional services or additional design requirements could raise the price.


Why is XCOR planning to conduct four Lynx flights per day?

Researchers, for example, may want to test an instrument before it goes into space on a satellite or to the international space station. With four flights a day, they can go up once and then calibrate the instrument. Or, if they have an issue with the instrument, they can fix it and go back up again.

There is also a phasing-in of technology readiness. It’s really hard to take something from a laboratory and make it flight ready. Our vehicle makes that quick and very easy.

For XCOR, four flights a day means more revenue and the ability to fly more people. Our founders got into this business because they wanted to go to space. But they also want to enable everybody else to go to space.


What type of training will be required for spaceflight participants?

They will go through medical screenings, seminars, altitude chamber training and G-force experience. It will probably be three to five days of training.


What is the difference between the Mark 1 and Mark 2 vehicles?

The Lynx Mark 1 is a prototype vehicle. We will fly it as a commercial vehicle. The first flight of Mark 2 will follow nine to 18 months after Mark 1 begins test flights. It just depends on how fast Mark 1 advances through the test program.

Mark 2 is the production model. We have orders for the Mark 2 vehicle. Space Expedition Curacao has purchased a wet lease of that vehicle.


Since this is a wet lease, XCOR provides the pilots and maintenance?

Yes, it will be our pilot, our maintenance crew, our operations crew and our administrator. It will be all XCOR personnel handling the plane. Space Expedition Curacao is putting the people into the right seat.


How will Space Expedition Curacao use the Lynx?

Space Expedition Curacao has announced that it will be offering Lynx flights from the Caribbean island of Curacao. This is a tourism venture. Space Expedition Curacao will offer flights starting in 2014.


What are your plans for an orbital vehicle?

That is on our horizon. That is something that we will do.


Any specific timeline?

No. This is new technology. This is disruptive technology. We are building a rocket plane. A rocket vehicle with wings has not been flown successfully since the X-15 flew in the 1950s. So we really have to prove the technology before we develop an orbital vehicle.


XCOR has been around since 1999. How is the company financed?

We have gotten our income from angel investors, government contracts and commercial customers. We don’t have a billionaire founder with deep pockets.


What is the status of your work with United Launch Alliance to develop a new Atlas 5 and Delta 4 upper-stage engine?

We have demonstrated a new lightweight aluminum rocket nozzle. We continue to test components and to test the liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen propellant.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...