Profile: Jeff Geason

President, XCOR Aerospace

Jeff Greason gave up a lucrative senior engineering position at the U.S. microchip giant Intel | in 1997 to go to work for Rotary Rocket, a small start-up that was building a piloted satellite launcher resembling a giant traffic cone with a helicopter blade on top.

Gary Hudson, then Rotary Rocket’s chief executive officer , was looking for experienced technical managers who understood aerospace technology but were not part of the traditional aerospace culture. Greason certainly fit the bill.

A Calt ech-educated electrical engineer, Greason proved his technical chops at Intel, leading a small team of engineers that helped keep the innovative chip maker ahead of the pack during the 1990s. Along the way his efforts earned him numerous awards and some patents to boot.

But away from the office, Greason was growing more and more preoccupied with spaceflight, his imagination stoked by reports of the success the scrappy DC-X team was having in the New Mexico desert flying an experimental reusable launcher.

Greason said it wasn’t until attending a Space Access Society conference in 1994 that it finally sunk in that the private-sector, not the government, held the keys to opening space to the average citizen — that doing space on a for-profit basis might actually work better.

“That was a transformational moment,” Greason recalled. “I walked out of there saying, ‘that’s the answer, that’s what I want to do’ and started studying the technology every spare minute and looking for a chance to break into the field.”

Greason spent two years at Rotary Rocket before being laid off in 1999 along with the rest of the propulsion team. Not ready to give up, Greason and several of his Rotary Rocket-castaways stayed in Mojave and started XCOR with little more than an idea for a low-cost rocket engine and their credit cards. The following spring, XCOR found its first investor after test firing a 15-pound nitrous-oxide-methane rocket engine in a hotel ballroom during the Space Access conference.

Greason has since built XCOR into a 22-person operation that did just over $1 million in business in 2005. He expects its revenues to grow substantially in the year ahead as the company gets cranking on a contract to build a fleet of rocket-powered planes based on the EZ-Rocket, a rocket-equipped homebuilt aircraft that has flown 15 times, including demos at the Oshkosh airshow and won Time magazines Transportation Invention of the Year in 2001.

XCOR’s customer is the Rocket Racing League, a new venture from X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, that intends to put on NASCAR-style regional rocket plane races. . A final showdown will be held each year in Las Cruces, N. M .

XCOR also is doing some work for the U.S. government. A small Air Force grant is paying for the company to run experiments on a liquid oxygen-methane engine it built with internal funds. XCOR also has a $1 million contract from NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate to work on an innovative composite cryogenic fuel tank design. And the company is a subcontractor on a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort Greason says he is not at liberty to discuss.

In parallel to building his business, Greason worked hard to shape a policy and regulatory environment supportive of the emerging commercial human spaceflight industry. He worked behind the scenes for enactment of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, and remains engaged with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) on producing the final regulations that will govern the commercial space tourism industry.

“Profit has a transforming power of its own. I don’t know if greed is good but it is sustainable,” Greason said. “If you figure out a way to make money in space, people will keep doing it irrespective of the political winds.”

Greason spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger at the FAA’s 9th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington in February .

Besides regulating with a light touch, what can government do to foster commercial human spaceflight?

Help make a market. If you look at aviation’s early years, the government’s purchase of vehicles and services really helped anchor the financial development of the aircraft industry in this country. There are certainly signs that some people are thinking about that — NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration program is an example. But I don’t think they’ve quite got what is needed to make a market work. Markets have to have a certain predictability to them. It’s very challenging for NASA to be a stable predictable customer because their constraints keep changing.

Is there a government-funded market for suborbital services?

No, and that’s unfortunate. The government had a very active suborbital rocket program as recently as 10 years ago flying microgravity experiments and other payloads in spite of the $1 million to $2 million per flight cost. Some of the reusable suborbital vehicles in development could give experimenters a lot more flights for the money and help revitalize that whole field of research.

Building a suborbital spacecraft may be easier, but does it lead to an orbital vehicle ?

Yes. We did not enter this business with our ambitions limited to suborbital. Suborbital is a step we have to get through. We wouldn’t have the skill set, the track record, or the financial wherewithal to build a reusable orbital system today — at least not one that would then prove commercially viable.

There is a lot of experience we have to get under our belt before we are ready to do that. We started by flight demonstrating the EZ-Rocket and we are now moving on to a revenue-generating suborbital vehicle. The next step after that is a revenue-generating suborbital vehicle than can carry expendable upper stages for launching 10-15 kilogram microsatellites , for example. Then we would evolve to a larger system with larger expendable upper stages that would further evolve into reusable upper stages capable of carrying people into orbit.

Are you happy with the FAA’s proposed human spaceflight regulations?

They are not perfect, but they’re awfully good. When I look back and see how much smarter the FAA has become in dealing with the kinds of vehicles the private sector is building, they have come a long way.

What about the FAA’s proposed regulations would you change?

We submitted something like 25 pages of comments on the proposed regulations and a lot of it is pretty technical. I will tell you we spent a lot of our energy this time around telling the FAA what they got right and should not change. But to pick one example, the proposed definition of “crew” doesn’t make distinctions between people like the pilot and people like a flight-test engineer. Under the current rules the same medical screening would be required for both. That’s probably not necessary. If the pilot blacks out that is an altogether different class of problem than if the flight-test engineer blacks out. You won’t get all the data you wanted from that flight but you won’t crash the vehicle.

Are the regulations clear enough to attract investors to these suborbital ventures?

Yes, although no one thing ever makes investors invest. It’s always a combination of factors. But three years ago regulatory risk was always the first or second question I was asked by a prospective investor, and now I get asked that question rarely.

How is NASA to work with for a small company?

The contract negotiation is very challenging. XCOR does not accept cost-plus contracts. There is a lot education we have to do to help NASA understand how to do business fixed price. On the other hand since we got that contract negotiated, the day-to-day workings have gone quite well.

Why won’t XCOR accept cost-plus contracts?

Our primary focus is on serving commercial companies and that requires us to keep a culture where saving money and finding cheaper solutions flows into our bottom line. It keeps people focused on the right thing. Cost-plus contracts have the other kind of incentive. Not only is there no incentive to think of cheaper alternatives, in some ways it’s to your advantage to think of more expensive ways to do something. But if we want to remain competitive in the private sector, we have to keep focused on the cheap things.