Masten Space Systems, one of a handful of commercial suborbital rocket companies that have sprung up in the last decade, suffered a setback in September when its Xaero vehicle was destroyed during a test flight. The vertical takeoff and landing vehicle was making its 110th flight and had reached an altitude of 1 kilometer before a valve glitch triggered its onboard shutdown system.

Undaunted, the Mojave, Calif.-based company is working on a follow-on vehicle, dubbed Xaero-B, that is scheduled to make its maiden flight in February.

Masten initially is targeting the market for suborbital applications including microgravity and atmospheric research. The company’s vehicles have logged some 260 flights to date, many for NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research program.

New York-based angel investor Joel Scotkin cut his first check to Masten in 2007, and took over the top spot some four years later, allowing company founder David Masten to return to the workbench as chief technology officer. The company, founded in 2004 as a garage shop with just a few full-timers, now employs about a dozen people.

Since Scotkin took over, Masten has sharpened its focus on entry, descent and landing technology. Of the capabilities required for human exploration of other worlds, landers are conspicuously unfunded in NASA’s current exploration budget.

Scotkin spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

There are several brands of vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing rockets out there that could conceivably be used as technology test beds for automated landers. How has Masten distinguished itself?

There’s the work we did with Draper Laboratory under NASA’s Flight Opportunities contract. That contract is a way for researchers and industry people to have their flights funded on suborbital vehicles or zero-g aircraft. With Draper, we tested their GENIE guidance and navigation system on our Xombie vehicle. We did a number of flights with them, ranging from tether hops through to a free flight in February 2012. This is an ongoing activity with them. People in the Flight Opportunities program at NASA in the chief technologist’s office said our first Draper flight was the first successful contracted Flight Opportunities suborbital flight, so we were very happy with that.

Do you have any other similar work in the pipeline?

The most exciting project I can talk about publicly is our work with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. Over the summer we did a series of flights in a campaign with JPL to test out and demonstrate their new planetary descent algorithm. We’re now working with them on the next phase, which will probably take place in 2013. The algorithm is called G-Fold, and it’s for a fuel-optimized descent from orbit to a planet’s surface. It’s a whole new approach that goes well beyond the Apollo-style landing we’ve been doing for the last 50 years. We flew a series of tests at an altitude of about 476 meters, culminating with a 750-meter downrange flight where we flew the vehicle at about 25 meters per second horizontally. We did an air braking burn, too.

Masten introduced its Xeus lunar lander concept publicly, albeit quietly, early last year. What’s happening with Xeus now?

We’ve been working on a prototype. Basically, United Launch Alliance gave us a Centaur tank from an Atlas 5 which we’re turning into a large-scale, horizontal lunar lander. We’re working now on a terrestrial demonstrator. It’s a whole new approach to a next-generation robotic or crewed landing model. With the Altair lunar lander concept in the Constellation program, for example, you had landing gear that put you 10 meters off the surface of the Moon after you landed. With Xeus, we’re going to be just a few meters above the surface. Part of our goal here is the Augustine commission said in 2009 that the minimum cost of returning to the Moon was going to be measured in billions of dollars for a lander, so it wasn’t a reasonable goal to set, given the budget constraints of the time. The idea behind Xeus is to go to the Moon with a new lander that’s dramatically less expensive and fits the parameters the Augustine commission set for return to the Moon.

Have you met with NASA about Xeus?

Yes, absolutely. We’ve met with people at six or seven centers.

Did you meet with anyone at NASA headquarters?

We have, but I don’t want to say with whom. There might be some sensitivity around that, because we currently have some outstanding proposals around the Xeus project.

Why did Masten get involved with Alan Stern’s Golden Spike venture, which aims to send crews to the lunar surface for $1.5 billion per mission?

I can’t really speak for Alan, but I think part of his goal is to take a model of public involvement and see if that is a viable route to help drive the funding for a project of this scale, which clearly has not been done in the past. We were intrigued enough by that model to want to become involved, and as it moves forward, we think that our expertise in lander technology is valuable to anyone trying to return to the Moon or land on Mars or wherever. So, from that point of view, we’re very confident in our expertise in future landers of all sorts, and we see Golden Spike as another potential opportunity and customer to help leverage that expertise.

What was the last big milestone achieved by Masten, and what does your flight calendar look like for 2013?

We’ve been working on our next-generation engine, the 3,500-pound-thrust Katana engine. We recently fired the heat sink version, which is a big, heavy steel version that can’t run for very long but gives you a sense of whether the major shape of the engine is correct. On Dec. 11, we fired the regeneratively cooled version of that engine for the first time. That’s the version of the engine that’s going to power the 100-kilometer Xogdor vehicle. The Xeus lander will use Katanas, too — four of them. We’ve now had multiple successful firings of the Katana, and it’s performing beautifully. I think we can say we’re getting something like 97 percent theoretical specific impulse, which we think is fantastic.

When is Xogdor going to fly?

It probably will be sometime in 2013. We’ll fly our Xaero-B vehicle first. The Xaero-B maiden flight is the next big thing that will happen for us, and that will be in February or so. That’s the rocket that will enable a number of NASA Flight Opportunities contracts, as well as our work in Florida for Space Florida.

The SpaceShipOne vehicle carried out the first privately funded manned flight to suborbital space back in 2004. So far none of the commercial suborbital ventures to have emerged since then is carrying commercial passengers. What’s your assessment of this industry?

I do think the industry has turned a corner. In general, the funding source for private spaceflight is going to be a combination of private dollars for entertainment and tourism and private dollars for scientific exploration. It’s hard to tell how sustainable the model is, but over the next three or four years there’s clearly going to be a lot of investment going into it.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...