T-Minus Eight Years And Counting


Spaceship One. Credit: Scaled Composites

It’s been eight long years since SpaceShipOne became the first privately-built spacecraft to actually fly into space, thus earning the title of…spacecraft.

OK, so that’s redundant. My kids have been making me watch too much Austin Powers (allow myself to introduce…myself).

Not being content with making history just once, Rutan and Co. went on to make two more flights with ballast equivalent to two passengers, thus earning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize.

Naturally I was geeked out over the whole thing when it happened. It also gave me the impetus to start writing Perigee, which had already been flitting about inside my cranial region for some time. I figured now that someone had actually done it, and another really rich guy was bankrolling a whole new airline on the concept, that my own wild ideas wouldn’t feel so…science-fictioney.

Yeah, that’s a word. Trust me, I’m a writer.

Speaking for myself, that presumption paid off. The book’s getting pretty solid reviews and halfway-respectable sales (i.e. it’s not in the Amazon cellar of shame), but the single biggest compliment is that people are saying that, yeah, it seems real, like something that could be happening right now if someone was willing to commit the resources.

Well, a whole lot of people have been committing resources to this new industry. So why haven’t they taken off yet?

The most well-known effort is Virgin Galactic, which has been hung up by the motor for Spaceship Two. It has to be a great deal larger than SS1’s, which hasn’t been done with a hybrid rocket motor yet. Hybrids have a liquid and solid component, typically Nitrous Oxide as oxidizer and a type of rubber for the fuel. This was presumed to be safer than traditional bi-propellant chemical rockets.

Sadly, that didn’t prove to be the case. We use N2O hybrids in amateur rocketry all the time, but hybrid rocketeers aren’t working with nearly as much of the stuff as Scaled was. An explosion during an engine flow test at Mojave a few years ago killed several employees and set the project back by who knows how long. I’d guess at least two years.

XCOR Aerospace, on the other hand, has been quietly developing more efficient reusable Kerosene-fueled engines during the same period. Their Lynx two-person spaceplane has finished its final design review after supersonic wind-tunnel testing, and the pressure hull is built. They’re cutting metal – baking carbon, whatever – and have the rocket engines pretty much ready to go. They’ve also been steadily building business partnerships and securing launch sites at airports in desirable vacation spots around the world, like Curacao.

Given Virgin/Scaled’s substantial head start, I don’t think anyone expected it to be neck-and-neck at this point. But there’s a good chance XCOR will be the first to actually launch paying passengers – and for about half the price.

Know what’s really cool? That this stuff is real. Welcome to the future – now which view would you prefer?

Spaceship Two interior

Frankly, I have concerns about this from a safety standpoint. Consider those half-dozen brand new astrotourists tumbling about for only five minutes or so. How are they going to make it back to their seats and buckle in for re-entry before the g’s build up? Virgin says they have a plan for that, but outside of some kind of inertia reel attachment I don’t know what it would be.

Lynx cockpit, passenger’s side

Lynx, on the other hand, gets me pretty fired up. Considering the only pax seat is the one next to the pilot’s, I’ll take that action. Now the big question is, how does one go about getting type-rated in this bird?

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