Sen—Just down the road from where Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing company is building the second SpaceShipTwo, another aspiring space transportation firm, XCOR Aerospace, is constructing a different type of suborbital space plane. Both vehicles are on track to begin test flights this year in Mojave, California.
Virgin Galactic had planned to be in the home stretch of a lengthy and thorough test flight regime for its six-passenger, two-pilot commercial spaceship by now. But an accident last year claimed the first ship, as well as a pilot’s life. An investigation is ongoing, but The Spaceship Company, owned by Virgin Galactic, had already started work on a second SpaceShipTwo, positioning Virgin to resume test flights before the end of this year.
In the meantime, XCOR has continued to make steady progress on completing its first version of Lynx, a two-seater space plane, which like SpaceShipTwo, is designed to fly both passengers and payloads into suborbital space. Test flights are on track to begin this year in late summer or early fall.
XCOR also intends to use future versions of Lynx to carry very small satellites, outfitted with upper-stage motors, into orbit. Earlier this month, the company hired a new chief executive, freeing co-founder and former head Jeff Greason to focus on developing the technology and shaping the regulatory and policy regime that will oversee and support the fledgling industry.
“Making our technology and our vehicles work is going to be the core of our business, but it’s not the entirety of it … We’ve gotten up to the point where managing and directing all that was clearly more hours in the day that I had,” Greason told Sen.
Enter John “Jay” Gibson, a former executive with Beechcraft Corporation in Wichita, Kansas, and former Assistant Secretary of the United States Air Force, who now serves as XCOR’s president and chief executive.
“I’m thrilled that we were able to reach out beyond the same pool of people who are always in the commercial space industry and bring somebody of Jay’s caliber in from the broader business world to bring additional competencies and additional credibility to our company and our industry,” Greason said.
Gibson’s hiring coincides with XCOR’s construction of a new research and development center in Midland, Texas. The company, like Virgin Galactic, currently is based in Mojave, California. Test flights of Lynx are expected to being there, then transition to Texas. A separate manufacturing center will be located near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
So far, XCOR has sold about 300 tickets for passengers to fly on Lynx, with rides selling for about $100,000, less than half the current price to fly on SpaceShipTwo.
XCOR is equally focused on flying suborbital payloads and flying satellites weighing in the neighborhood of 10 kg into orbit.
“We’ve designed the vehicle system to approach those three parts of the market—people, payloads and upper-stage missions—right from the beginning,” Greason said. “If you look at the history of transportation services, nobody can ever predict which segments of the market have most of the traffic.”
“I think the only smart play is to structure you vehicles so that they can address a reasonably broad section of possible users and then to treat them all as important parts of the transportation market. Then you are agnostic about which of them are important … As a transportation provider, you don’t care. You’re putting boxes or backsides in seats,” he said.
Greason is adamant about not putting time constraints on Lynx’s upcoming test flight program. “The last thing in the world we want to do is add to the pressures that would lead us to try to cut it short,” he said.