Tiny XCOR Aerospace recently landed its biggest piece of government business to date: a $3.3 million subcontract to help Alliant Techsystems (ATK) develop a liquid-methane-fueled rocket engine for NASA’s future Crew Exploration Vehicles.

ATK’s Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based Mission Systems Group Propulsion and Controls Division – formerly known as GASL — was awarded a $10.4 million contract in early May to design, develop, fabricate and test a prototype rocket engine that burns liquid oxygen and liquid methane and is capable of producing 7,500 pounds of constant thrust. NASA estimates that would be enough power to serve as a main engine on both the Crew Exploration Vehicle and the lunar lander’s ascent module.

NASA earlier this year dropped plans to use methane-fueled propulsion systems for the first Crew Exploration Vehicles the U.S. space agency hopes to field by 2014. NASA opted instead to rely on flight-proven hypergolic propulsion systems of the type the space shuttle uses to maneuver in orbit. However, NASA officials said at the time that they remained interested in methane propulsion for the vehicles the United States intends to send to the Moon starting around 2018.

ATK’s technology development contract, aimed at maturing the technology to the point where it is ready to be inserted into NASA’s exploration plans, is one of two such contracts awarded by NASA’s Cleveland-based Glenn Research Center in May for development of prototype 7,500-pound methane engines. The other contract, worth $5.8 million, went to KT Engineering of Huntsville, Ala.

Mojave, Calif.-based XCOR’s role in the ATK-led project is to develop an initial heavy weight version of the propulsion system. It would be what ATK and XCOR officials described as a workhorse engine meant to point the way to the design and fabrication of a near-flight-weight prototype.

“The workhorse is not optimized for weight the way the prototype would be,” said Robert Bakos, ATK Propulsion and Control’s vice president and general manager. “For a flight engine, obviously lighter is better.”

Bakos said the flight-weight prototype would be designed and built in Ronkonkoma , provided NASA continues the project beyond the first phase. But for the next six months, the pressure is on XCOR to deliver the workhorse engine that will serve as the basis for the flight-weight hardware.

XCOR President Jeff Greason said his company is up to the task. In the nearly seven years since Greason founded the company along with several castoffs from the failed Rotary Rocket company, XCOR has designed, built and tested several rocket engines including a 50-pound methane engine and an 1,800-pound liquid-oxygen-and-kerosene- fueled engine. XCOR also has done design work on a 10,000-pound methane engine with the financial assistance of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Greason said XCOR is looking forward to bringing all of its experience to date to the NASA project, saying the 7,500-pound engine will be “a very clear descendent” of the engines XCOR already has built.

Greason, a self-taught propulsion engineer who left a senior technical position at chip-maker Intel in 1997 to enter the rocket business, said the NASA LOX-methane work is his company’s biggest government contract to date. XCOR also is hard at work on the design of a fleet of rocket-equipped aircraft for the New York-based Rocket Racing League.

XCOR now has 30 employees on its payroll, up from 22 earlier this year. Greason said he has four new positions he currently is seeking to fill.

One of XCOR’s new hires is Henry Vanderbilt, the founder and long time president of the Space Access Society, a small non profit organization that holds an annual conference outside Phoenix that is geared toward the cheap-access-to-space crowd. Vanderbilt notified Space Access Society members in January that he was stepping down as president but would remain active in organizing the 2007 conference. Vanderbilt recently relocated to Mojave to serve as Greason’s chief of staff.

Comments: bberger@space.com