The Sad End Of XCOR

I hadn’t realized that people had put down the full amount of the ticket.

This number jumped out at me:

Xcor eventually raised at least $19.2 million, according to Crunchbase, a platform that tracks fundraising.

Virgin Galactic has spent hundreds of millions of dollars. One wonder what might have been had XCOR gotten even twice as much as they did.

I disagree with this:

The companies took very different approaches to the challenge of reaching space. Virgin Galactic uses a twin-fuselage carrier aircraft to hoist a space plane known as SpaceShipTwo up to a high altitude; it releases the smaller craft, which ignites its own rocket motor to blast into space. Earlier this month, the company reached space with its SpaceShipTwo vehicle for the first time on a test flight.

Using another vehicle or booster to propel a crew craft to space is considered a “much more traditional approach,” said Sonya McMullen, assistant professor of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. But Xcor would have the Lynx climb all the way up under its own power.

“They really took the hard technological approach to the same problem,” McMullen said.

Even for suborbital, there’s not that much benefit to air launch. Single-stage to suborbit is not a technological challenge. While XCOR may have underestimated the technical challenges of Lynx, I doubt there were any that couldn’t have been solved with more funding. Of course, the uncertainty of the market size probably didn’t help in that regard. But losing that ULA contract, after the Air Force cut the funding, was the final straw.

And as I’ve often said, despite the failures (so far) to get a commercial suborbital operation going, there are no intrinsic reasons why it has to be difficult. XCOR had a good technical approach that ultimately failed to find sufficient investment, and VG made poor initial business and design choices that has resulted in them becoming a money sink in a sunk-cost trap for over a decade, despite the much vaster financial resources. As I noted in the last post, I expect that Blue Origin will finally show the way and allow us to determine the market, next year. Maybe even VG finally will as well.

17 thoughts on “The Sad End Of XCOR”

  1. *shrug* I’m sorry they didn’t realize that they were buying on speculation.

    After watching the Neptune bracelet phone fiasco, I stay away from IndieGoGo campaigns and the like. If I like your product, I’ll buy it when it is on Amazon with Prime two-day shipping.

    BTW, I just checked and the Neptune website is still up. Since this is supposed to be dead and buried, who is paying for the website, and why?

  2. I don’t think any industry professional with a modicum of experience would call VG’s approach “traditional”. I suspect Prof. McMullen’s quotation is missing context.

        1. I am not disputing your remarks in the least that at least in hindsight, air launch is an expensive approach. I was simply countering a remark offered by Mr. Sanchez that VG’s approach could not be called traditional. VG is following aspects of the X-15 program — it may have been “back then”, but the VG team is doing it in the “now.”

      1. If you’re talking about manned flights, then yes. Over a period of many years, the X-15 program flew 199 flights, each carrying a single highly trained test pilot. There were three X-15 aircraft. One was lost in a fatal accident.

        Some of those X-15 flights were glide tests. Most were high speed flights, some reaching hypersonic velocities well below suborbital altitudes. A relative few of those 199 flights achieved altitudes of 50 miles or more.

        While there are some similarities between the flight profiles of the X-15 and SpaceShipTwo, the vehicles couldn’t be much more different.

  3. I really find myself struggling to be interested in the suborbital commercial space ventures. I don’t wish the companies such as VG and Blue Origin ill by any measure, but I just don’t get it. Seems to be a niche market that doesn’t really serve as a stepping stone to orbital operations and beyond (perhaps Blue Origin is an exception here). Rocket Lab and similar efforts, even without the human element, seem to be much more interesting and practical.

    1. I agree. Sub-orbital, as such, has the same relation to space exploration as cruise ships have to oceanography. They might make a profitable business but the only real advance has been conclusively demonstrating that hybrid rocket engines are a dead end.

        1. I sure wasn’t the only one that thought that when the original SpaceShipOne was developed so quickly and worked well. What’s happened since sure looks like there’s an upper limit on how big they can be made.

          It also looks like there is an upper limit on the practical size of solid rocket engines of all sorts. Thrust instability is probably inseparable from need to convert tons of solid into flaming gas and only gets worse as size increases. This combines with high parasitic weight from the entire case having to withstand both high pressure and high temperature and the low specific impulse from the nature of the fuel.

          1. James Benson used to claim that hybrid engines could not explode. I remember wondering whether he had ever heard of Murphy’s Law.

    2. I was excited about it ten years ago, but it’s starting to look like SpaceX will soon be charging less for a trip to orbit than Virgin will be for a hop up to 80km and back.

      With hindsight, the X-Prize was a mistake, as it encouraged people to rush to designs that could be built quickly but had little potential for growth.

      1. Nah it was important in that it brought more attention and thus money to the segment. You can consider it as a rather successful publicity stunt.

        Which is what the aviation prizes in the early XXth century also did basically. I don’t remember the DC-3 winning any of those prizes but it took a lot of stumbles on the way to get to it.

        Probably the only aircraft that I can remember which was known for getting a prize and that had (limited) commercial success was Bleriot’s.

        1. You make a valid point that I tend to overlook. I take it for granted that everyone is paying at least as much attention as I am. I can still remember going outside at night with my dad to look at Echo 1 go over and watching Shepard’s flight on television in elementary school. Clearly a mistake, especially now.

          When I read McCullough’s Wright biography, I thought that their biggest mistake was dropping out of sight for 5 years while they “perfected” there plane. That and not farming engine development out instead of trying to do it themselves. When they reappeared, they found that all their patent bought was legal bills while the rest of the world took their idea and ran with it, and they were just one more airplane company.

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