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“Baby Step to Space for Civilians”

XCOR Aerospace hosts a media demonstration flight of their EZ-Rocket

by Michelle Evans


For several years now, we have witnessed the rise and fall of many companies who want to develop a new and cheap way for people to get into space. Most of these come on with a big splash and end with a big thud.


Being a part of an organization made up of those people who want to eventually travel into space as paying customers, it has been difficult to watch year after year as promises of great leaps forward turn into nothing more than black holes for the money of investors.


One of the inherent problems appears to be that each time we hear of a new innovative way to reach orbit, it is accompanied by huge fanfare and promises of breakthrough technologies that will take a large amount of money and a long amount of time to come to fruition. Unfortunately, most investors in today’s financial climate want returns on their investments almost immediately and will not stick it out for the long haul that is required. The companies themselves oftentimes foster this environment when they promise pie in the sky and then can’t deliver quick enough.


Now, a new player has entered the space tourism stage: XCOR Aerospace. The primary group who formed XCOR is made up of the engine development team which worked for Rotary Rocket to propel their Roton test vehicle.


After Rotary Rocket ceased operations, the team decided to stay together and formed XCOR; with the basic intent of designing and building inexpensive and reliable rocket engines. One of their overriding concerns is to not put themselves into the same technological or financial binds that have served to destroy so many other hopeful space start-ups companies.


The idea with XCOR is to move incrementally. They started small and are building up one step at a time. Instead of promising to build a single-stage-to-orbit rocketship right off the starting line, they are first proving the concept of their design with a cheap, reliable rocket with just a few hundred pounds of thrust. To test their engine, it was decided to mount two of them together in a specially-modified Long-EZ sport aircraft, designed by Burt Rutan and flown by his brother, retired Air Force Lt. Colonel Dick Rutan, both famous for the Voyager aircraft that flew around the world nonstop and unrefueled in December 1986.


First flight of the renamed EZ-Rocket aircraft occurred on July 21 at Mojave Airport, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles, and not far from the site of Edwards Air Force Base where all the famous rocket planes from the X-1, to the X-15, to the X-24 once flew.


The initial flight test series proved the concept that the aircraft with twin 400-pound thrust engines mounted where the normal prop-driven engine once was, would work together safely. Once their confidence grew, it was decided to have an official rollout and demonstration flight for the media, which occurred November 12.


Several members of OCSS were present for the event including Hank Murdoch, Robert Hillhouse, John Spencer, and myself. Also in attendance were James Spellman of the NSS Western Spaceport chapter and Henry Vanderbilt of the Space Access Society.


The morning of the flight was marred by a tragic commercial aircraft accident when an Airbus airliner crashed just after takeoff from JFK International Airport in New York. The highly successful flight of the EZ-Rocket just a few hours later provided an excellent counterpoint for aviation and space enthusiasts who have been hard pressed for much good news over the last few months.


XCOR Aerospace has great plans for the future of commercial spaceflight, but they are doing what they said they would by proving their technologies and moving forward slowly, yet deliberately.


As Dick Rutan powered into the sky in front of us, the crowd of spectators was clapping and cheering. Disappearing over nine thousand feet up into the cloudy desert sky we could all hear as the rockets ran out of fuel and he started his several-minute-long gliding approach back to the runway, circling overhead, losing altitude, with the Long-EZ chase aircraft close by.


Winds precluded rolling back to the media site after touchdown, but soon after being towed back, Dick gave a solid thumbs up to the crowd. His first comment upon jumping out of the cockpit was that this flight marked “the first baby step to space for civilians.” He may be so right.