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Space Cadets, Grab Your Sunscreen: Space Tourism Set for Liftoff

XCOR sets 2010 as the date when its Lynx suborbital spacecraft will bring civilians to the cusp of space



Courtesy of Mike Massee, XCOR

Eager not to be left behind when space tourism takes off, rocket engine maker XCOR Aerospace in Mojave, Calif., announced Wednesday that it will be ready to blast ordinary (albeit wealthy) Earthlings into space within two years. XCOR reps said at a press conference Wednesday that its Lynx suborbital spaceship, still in the prototype phase, will be a two-seat (one pilot, one passenger) craft that takes off like an airplane and glides back to Earth like a space shuttle. During the journey to and from the outer edge of the atmosphere, a passenger will be treated to a 30-minute ride that includes a minute and a half of weightlessness.

XCOR touted the Lynx's size—that of a small plane—as giving it a leg up over potential rivals. The reduced scale reduces the capital outlay required to build each spacecraft and enables the Lynx to make up to four flights daily (although two a day are more likely at first), XCOR president, Jeff Greason, said during the press conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., adding, "If I could figure out how to hold a half passenger, I would." The smaller the better.

In January, Virgin Atlantic's space tourism arm, Virgin Galactic, along with spacecraft maker Scaled Composites, LLC, unveiled designs for their eight-seat SpaceShipTwo. The suborbital spacecraft is expected to provide passengers with four and a half minutes of weightlessness. The Associated Press reported that 200 customers have already ponied up $200,000 apiece to reserve a ride. The company said it hopes to begin test flights as early as this summer.

Virgin Galactic's model includes a mother ship—the WhiteKnightTwo—which is an airplane that takes off with the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo attached and releases the spacecraft at a certain altitude. The Lynx, however, will take off from any runway and handle like a high-performance fighter craft, XCOR test pilot Rick Searfoss, a former NASA space shuttle commander and retired U.S. Air Force colonel, said during the press conference. As the Lynx approaches the outer atmosphere, the rocket engines will be shut down and the pilot and passenger will feel weightless until they begin their 20-minute descent.

"We come back like a big old glider," he added. Like the space shuttles, the Lynx will glide back to Earth by descending in a series of circles.

For Searfoss, whose first shuttle mission came in 1993, "the absolute best part of flying in space was the view, and you're going to be riding right up front next to the pilot," he said.

The Lynx's cockpit will be sealed and pressurized, and its occupants will wear pressurized spacesuits. Greason pointed out that the Lynx is not designed with ejection seats but stressed it would include emergency features (which he declined to detail).

The popularity of the burgeoning commercial space travel industry may come down to economics: Companies will have to attract investors and build spacecraft that can easily, inexpensively and repeatedly be launched to and return from suborbital altitude.

Space Adventures, Ltd., in Vienna, Va., has a slightly different model for its fledgling space tourism business. Instead of flying civilians into space, the company brokers interstellar experiences through a system of partners and was responsible for cutting a deal with Russia's Federal Space Agency under which one of its customers will hitch a ride to the International Space Station on board a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft. Earlier this month Space Adventures completed its acquisition of Florida- and Las Vegas–based Zero Gravity Corporation, which offers its customers 90-minute flights at about $4,000 per person aboard its G-Force-One, an aircraft that gives its passengers the feeling of weightlessness by performing parabolic maneuvers that simulate zero gravity.

XCOR did not quote prices for its suborbital joyrides, and Greason said that they would probably be set by the companies that purchase Lynxes and set up their own high-altitude tours. He estimated, however, that Lynx flights would cost perhaps half as much as those of competing commercial spacecraft, because the Lynx takes off and lands like a normal plane, so no additional infrastructure must be built to accommodate these flights. "We just need runways and airspace to do what we do," he said. Still, Greason pointed out that Virgin Galactic would not necessarily be a competitor, adding, "in fact, we hope someday they will be a customer."

Greason estimated that the Lynx will weigh between 2,700 and 3,000 pounds (1,225 and 1,360 kilograms) and will feature four rocket engines using liquid oxygen and kerosene as propellant.

XCOR has its sights set higher than the suborbital fringe of space. The Lynx might not be appropriate for extended spaceflight, but the experiences gained by running it several times a day will over time provide the experience necessary to take that next step. "Orbital flight," Greason said, "is where we want to go."

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