Belfast Telegraph

XCOR hoping to win the space race

Space enthusiasts keen to explore the skies but deterred by the hefty price tag will soon be able to board a rocket for just a fraction of the cost.

Passengers in the XCOR Lynx will be able to experience weightlessness and view the earth from over 300,000 feet up with a just a pilot for company.

Seating just two people, the spacecraft takes off and lands vertically, using its reusable rocket propulsion system to launch from the same runways used by commercial aeroplanes.

More than 200 tickets for a trip on the Lynx have already been sold, at a cost of 95,000 US dollars (£57,000), considerably cheaper than the 250,000 US dollars (£155,000) tickets for trips into space inside Sir Richard Branson's six-passenger Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo.

Jeff Greason, chief executive and co-founder of California-based XCOR Aerospace, is convinced making space travel financially viable is the key to exploring the skies.

He said: "We have to go a couple of levels deeper than passion. When you look at the question of why it is so many years after we first went to space yet so little of it is being used, it's because it just costs too much.

"We have to do something to fundamentally reduce the cost before space becomes an economic good. We looked at that problem and not having a billionaire writing your cheques, it had to be a money making proposition."

Passengers will put on white space suits two hours before boarding the spacecraft and embarking on the 40 to 50-minute flight.

Randy Baker, a vice president at XCOR, said things move very quickly: "There is just 15 seconds between lighting the engines and take off, then 50 seconds after lighting the engines you go supersonic and very close to vertical and are pushed back in your seat. Then three minutes after lighting the engines you are at 180,000 feet."

Mr Greason said: "You are going more or less straight up at about mach 3. Then the engines cut off and you have about a minute and a half of zero gravity coast up to our peak altitude of 350,000 feet then another minute and a half of coasting back down until there is enough atmosphere for the vehicle to feet it.

"Then it takes about a minute to do the re-entry and the pull out and then about twenty minutes of gliding home to land."

The spacecraft, which will be able to fly four times a day, seats just the pilot and the participant and the passenger will be expected to get involved during the adventure. They will be asked to perform tasks such as reading instruments and making sure dials are holding steady.

Mr Baker said: "It makes them feel more involved. Some passengers won't want to do that but for us that is part of the experience, so you are not just a passenger."

The very limited capacity for passengers means the flight can be a very personal experience.

"You will be able to look down at the earth; you will be able to look up at the stars in the day time and sideways to see the thin band of the earth's atmosphere from the side," Mr Greason added.

"It's your flight so if there is some particular part of the earth that you want to look at we can steer the ship to look at the Grand Canyon or the area you find of most interest. Then you have time to look around and soak up being where so few have been before."

The first model will take travellers 200,000 feet up but the company hopes the second model will reach 300,000 and it will not be too long before they are ready to take to the skies.

"We expect to be in flight tests by the end of the year, after the first tests we won't know how long until we are ready to take the first passengers but my guess is six to 18 months. I think we will be flying participants by the end of next year but we don't like to put a date on things," Mr Baker said.

The people who have already purchased tickets are a diverse group, from keen explorers to scientific researchers, but almost none of them fit into the category of young thrill-seeker, according to the company's chief executive.

Mr Greason said: "They are notably older, successful professionals. They have some sense that space is an important part of the future and want to be a part of making it happen."

There are also very few physical limitations, so even those in poor health may be able to travel.

"Some people cannot handle the excitement, some people are claustrophobic, so we take them in a high performance aeroplane to test if they have a psychological problem but in the broad sense, if you can on a rollercoaster, you can do this because the time you are doing it is short. It means people in ill health who want to do this while they still can are able to."

The recent success of Bafta-winning space movie Gravity means there is increased excitement about space travel but Mr Greason claims it takes more than public enthusiasm to strengthen the industry.

"The auto industry does not depend on movies about it, it doesn't depend on public enthusiasm, it depends on usefulness. The most significant thing we could establish is to make space travel pay, that would make it useful regardless of a movie or the whims of government funding."

XCOR Aerospace is housed in a small former Second World War Marine Corps base at the Mojave Air & Space Port in California, with just 56 employees.

"There is a mythology about rockets that you need people with white coasts and doctorates, that is not true. A lot of what we have been doing is going back to rocketry back when people cared that it cost, it's a pre-space race approach." Mr Greason said.

"There is a model in payloads such as experiments for government or industrial concerns, being able to look back at the earth or doing experiments in zero gravity.

"We will be able to fly four times a day so with the frequency being high and the price being low it makes it interesting to a whole other class of users. What we are doing in space is just the tinniest slither of what we could or should be doing."

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