I’m in transit back from a day with XCOR Aerospace in Mojave yesterday.
To my mind, XCOR is the great underreported commercial spaceflight story of the decade. While companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic get the majority of the press attention, XCOR has been quietly building, piece by piece, a spaceship of its own.
I think the company will have to start fielding a lot more media requests later this year, however. That’s when they’ll start test flying the Lynx in preparation for revenue flights as early as next year.
Lynx is a two-seat rocketplane powered by four XCOR-built 5K18 engines. If Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, with its eight seats, is a space minivan, XCOR is the space Corvette. You can read more about this comparison in my story last year for Popular Mechanics.
While SpaceShipTwo will require swapping out the entire engine between flights, Lynx’s all-liquid propulsion will let ground crews refuel and go on short order like a regular old airplane.
XCOR’s Mike Massee got this shot of me with my camera. I’m pushing the button on a static fire test of one of the reaction control system engines that will allow Lynx to maneuver in space. The ship will have 12 of these babies on board, six to control the ship in pitch, yaw, and roll, with the other six serving as backup.
My first couple of shots of engineer Mark Peck (standing behind me in this photo) running engine tests came out blurry because I had a hard time supressing my startle response when the engine fired. The engine punches out only 50 pounds of thrust, but it’s loud, even with hearing protection. Sitting right next to it, I coud feel my pant legs flutter in the shockwave as well as the heat from the blast.
Even so, the engine is safe enough to run indoors, with other work going on in the shop all around. XCOR’s Doug Jones calls out the impending test fire, and the other people in the shop put on hearing protection and stand clear for the few seconds that the engine run requires with prep.
The blast shield around the engine is made of two layers of bullet-proof glass—just in case. It may never be needed, however. In XCOR’s 14-year history, during which it has had 4,000-plus engine firings, an XCOR engine has never had what is euphemistically termed in the rocket business a hard start.