XCOR Aerospace test burn on prototype rocket planeIn an earlier post I presented 4 gift ideas for the geek in your life. I picked them not just because they’re cool, but also because they each represent an example of innovation at its finest. I’ll take a post for each to explain why.

The first item on my gift list is from XCOR Aerospace. I’ve been following this company since 2004, when I covered the birth of commercial space flight for Reuters and other outlets. While SpaceShipOne was getting all the press attention, XCOR was quietly plinking away at its own bid for space. I often find that the most exciting action happens out of the spotlight, and that’s why I poked around Mojave Airport after the camera crews had gone home.

What I found in XCOR was a small group of very talented and very dedicated engineers and technicians quietly helping to bring about the revolution in space travel.

The commercial space flight industry is a great place to watch the cutting edge of innovation. Here we can witness nothing less than the birth of an entirely new industry that likely will turn out to be as influential as any that has come before.

Two markers of success for these companies: either a visionary and very well-heeled angel investor betting the farm on the idea that if they build it customers will come, or a well-disciplined team building their stairway to heaven step by methodical step, earning the funds they need along the way.

XCOR has taken the latter approach. They’ve been steadily building the pieces of the technological puzzle needed to assemble a suborbital rocket plane that can take off and land on a runway without the aid of a mothership like SpaceShipOne’s White Knight. The ship has a name, the Lynx, a test pilot, former Shuttle commander Rick Searfoss, and most of the pieces in place: safe, reliable rocket engine technology developed in-house, experience with building and flying manned test airplanes, and now the customers have begun  lining up. Along the way, they’ve been assembling the pieces needed not just for their own vehicle, but also for a sustainable rocket ship manufacturing infrastructure.

“Having too much money probably causes more companies to fail than having too little money,” XCOR chief engineer Dan DeLong told me back in ’04.  “You never learn thrift if you start out with too much money.”

Words to the wise, and all the more relevant in today’s crazy economy.