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TIVO'd Live Blogging

This is what I would have live blogged at yesterday's XCOR press conference if I'd had an Internet commercial.


Doug Graham gives an introduction. Leads off by introducing Esther Dyson.

Took it for granted that she would be going to the moon, but space was like a priesthood, for NASA and big companies, not for ordinary folk. If you wanted to go into space you went into industry and lost your entrepreneurial initiative, or you wrote science fiction (Pournelle). PCs have made computing cheaper by orders of magnitude. The Internet was developed by the government, but its potential didn't explode until it was turned over to the commercial sector. In the software world, you can build a business by copying software, but you can steal XCOR's plans, and not be an XCOR and not build a Lynx. Not qualified to judge the technology. But she can judge the customers, and the people and their approach. She's investing in Jeff and the team that he surrounded himself with. Real-world company. Not making wild-eyed promises, but transparent and making promises they will be held accountable for.

Greason: Just notified that Air Force wants to continue to fund their SBIR, and the process would make parts of the vehicle public over time, so announcing now. Most people wouldn't be able to tell the last few versions apart. Also wanted to let potential travelers know what else was out there. Airframe designed from scratch to be optimized for the engines. Fly from the ground out into space, see stars, earth curvature, earth below, experience weightlessness. Looking at different ways to package people in vehicle, and shifted from Xerus to Lynx about three years ago. Referring to Metacomp Technologies CFD support. Started with engines in 1999, because it was clear that this was the critical technology at the time for building these kinds of vehicles. High flight rate is critically important. Allows a much smaller vehicle, with single passenger, and still fly as many people with a smaller vehicle that flies less often. Regulatory regime is unique in the world. By requiring developers to release safety records, there wil be competitive pressure for safer vehicles. High flight rate, low cost propulsion systems will be able to offer prices at roughly half the price of competitors. Smallest vehicle that they can build--if they could figure out a way to fly half a passenger they would do that. Not that last step--just one more step on a roadmap they laid out years ago: low suborbital, high suborbital, orbital. Thinks that this business is important, and that demonstrating a vehicle like this can make money will bring new capital into the market.
Rick Searfoss: Was convinced would never fly into space again after leaving NASA. After working with XCOR, became convinced that it was possible, except this time can take wife (if she wants to go). Showing video of virtual vehicle being rolled out of hangar, checking out engines on runway, lighting it up, and on its way. Similar to high-performance fighter aircraft. Flight test and ops will take place same place (initially) as Yeager's first flight. All-liquid rocket propulsion technology. Using same approaches as X-15 and Shuttle--dead stick landing. Well proven and easy to do, except they have the ability for go-around, reducing risk. Absolutely enthralled with the prospect of flying Lynx through test phase to the point that they can safely fly the paying public. XCOR an impressive organization. Lots of people want to get into the game, but very few really have capability to make it happen--XCOR is one of those. Scalable, developable, vey amenable to flight-test regime. As a test pilot he loves it. Flight test isn't about taking risk--it's about mitigating and controlling them while expanding the performance envelope. Most impressive thing about space is the view (riding up front, next to piot). Weightless experience is more different than you can imagine, but still second place to the view. Excited about working with this technical team to make it a reality, and open up space to many people in the future.

LA Times: What is state of vehicle.

Vehicle is sufficiently designed that they can start to build.

Pressurized cockpit, suit?

Yes, pressurized cockpit with life support, but will have pressure suits for additional layer of safety. Searfoss: Developing suits with Orbital Outfitters, which will be lighter and more manageable to wear. Not pressurized, and can fly with faceplate open. Dyson: You get to wear a space suit, and keep it.

Will passengers need physicals?

Missed the response.

Can't address price point, because they are not the retailers. "our price to them is sufficiently low that the can charge about half the competition.

How large is the market. Jeff know one knows for sure, but a lot of research has been done. Dyson: a lot of people with more money than time. They can't do a safari in Africa, but can do this in a day.

some training needed for suit operations, but shouldn't take more than a few days and doesn't have to happen right next to the flight.

Is 200,000 feet high enough? "More than high enough to satisfy the people who haven't flown at all. By the time that market is worked off, will have higher vehicles. Direct competitor is Scaled/SSCompany. Very different concepts. Doesn't think that any one will be the way to go. Different vehicles for different experiences. They only have one passenger with a co-passenger experience. Theirs is direct from runway to space, with no mother ship.

Test flights first half of 2010.

Why not carried aloft, to shorten rocket burn, like SS2? Expect that there will be competition on cost, so rather than focus on how fast to get there, but how to design a system that's cost effective to operate, but be able to compete as well. That led to the engineering choice of doing it in a single vehicle. Trade off is to have more advanced rocket propulsion, which is why there started there.

Why suborbital when the problem is orbital. Esther: likes speciation--going after a real market niche in the short term, with real technology that will continue to involve over time. It's a good business case. Jeff looks forward to the day that he can announce an orbital system, and you'll be able to see the heritage from what we're doing today, and obvious that a step-wise approach is better than "hail Mary" to orbit.

Air Force contract more important psychologically than financially. Very validating to have them watching over shoulders and trusting them. Don't have all the money yet, but don't expect any problems based on current discussion with investors. Ride is about thirty minutes, with last twenty a glide home. Only difference between Lynx one and two (none external), but 2 will be full-performance version. Can fly one without waiting for ultimate perfect vehicle.

Is it high enough to be in space? Tee-shirt factor is an issue, but still a big market for early adopters. Not technically in space (50 miles, 100 km), and that will obviously be worth more, but they will get to that point. Price allows multiple flights. In terms of passenger sizing, Greason is the model (because he wants to fly, and because he's 95th percentile).

Total burn time is about three minutes, weightless about a minute and a half.

Start with taxi tests, then runway hops, then fly arounds, then subsonic (thirty or forty), then carefully through transition, then take it to the limit. Fifty to seventy to a hundred flight tests.

What infrastructure required? Franchise to other places in the world? Do you expect Mojave to be upgraded to New Mexico class?

No infrastructure required except runways and air space. Doesn't expect California taxpayers to build them new facilities. Expects to fly all over the world, because people want to operate from their own turf.

Do you need to be supersuper wealthy? Comparable to Everest operation. Had two teachers who bought flights on Zero Gee at 3500. Was it worth it? Absolutely, will share with students and remember forever. Greason: Of course price will come down. Aren't we glad that people bought plasma teevees and cell phones so that now we can all afford them? Never be dirt cheap, but could come down to the price of a cruise.

2700-3000 lb class engines for engines, with three of them. Weight of vehicle commensurate with that thrust. One of differences between Mark 1 and Mark 2 will be leading edges on nose for entry, but it's a lot easier than orbit. Peak temp about 1200. Will use commercial for of RP-2.

Not four flight a day per pilot, but perhaps two. Methane interested for upper stages, not for suborbital.

Nice to be first in the marketplace, but better to be right. Multiple parties will be entering this market, and that's great.

How far off is orbital flight? Can it scale up?

Orbital flight is where we want to go. selected this approach because it fits it a roadmap that leads there. That doesn't mean that the vehicle design itself will carry over. It's the systems concepts that will.

Does the vehicle require a sophisticated flight director? Jeff: A very sophisticated one, and he's standing right here (referring to Searfoss). Very simple flight profile required to military vehicle, but expect the vehicle to be flyable by a pilot without a lot of need for automated flight control. Just took a dig at Scaled: "not like we're going to just light off a hybrid rocket motor and we're off on Mr. Toad's Wild Right. "Digital throttle--on or off." Throttling adds complexity and failure modees, and isn't necessary.

How to reassure customers or investors that a cataclysmic failure by them or a competitor won't destroy the industry? ME-163 bad example, but understand that safety has to be high priority. Never find anything in advance, will test, and test, and test. Will have more flights on it than anyone has put on a rocket vehicle before they put passengers in it. In a lot of ways the traveling public are a lot more sophisticated than people judging from the outside. Esther: If it's inevitable, delay it as long as possible, set expectations properly, and realize that part of the appeal is that it is real. People die climbing Everest, often. Don't make light of it, but doesn't have to be a major blow to the industry.

Question to Esther: How important beyond military contracts and private travel, how much business beyond does she need. Not expecting asteroid mining or Mars colonization, but she expects them to develop this spacecraft and its descendants, but wouldn't be surprised to develop new generations of technology and become part of the establishment. Not a long-term prospect. They are disruptive because they're small and quick. Generating reasonable returns from the POV of a VC.


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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on March 27, 2008 5:00 PM.

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