Rocketship Engines for Sale….If Anyone Needs Them

XCOR's Lynx suborbital vehicle

During a presentation at the Space Access 10 conference in Phoenix, XCOR CEO Jeff Greason said he was both thrilled and terrified by the opportunity that President Barack Obama had given the emerging “NewSpace” commercial sector. Noting that there is nothing worse than giving a true believer everything he wanted and watching him fail, he said it was time for the industry to “grow up,” stop tearing each other down, and learn to work together to solve common problems.

“We’re all on the same team,” Greason said, referring to the broad commercial space sector that includes everyone from giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin to small start-up companies like his own. He warned that “if we blow it this time, I’m not sure we’re going to get another chance.”

Greason said he is willing to sell engines even to competitors. In a sane world, a company that has a vehicle without an engine would buy one from a firm like XCOR that specializes in engine propulsion. However, fears of building up a competitor have blocked such moves, Greason said.

The interesting question, which he raised without fully answering, is who exactly might need an engine. This is where things get interesting…

Greason said that when XCOR put together its plans, officials expected to be in a fiercely competitive market for suborbital flights. In order to stay in business, the company’s price per seat for a suborbital ride aboard Lynx Mark II, set at $95,000, would have to be below what it would cost for its major competitors to put a passenger in space.

He noted that, for one reason or another, the market does not seem to be developing quite as expected. XCOR’s “well funded competitors” do not seem to be gaining on the company.

Greason did not mention any of his “well funded competitors” by name, nor did anyone present have to ask. There is a short list of companies aiming for a piece of the market: Rocketplane Global, Masten Space Systems, Armadillo Aerospace, Unreasonable Rocket, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Masten's Xoie lunar lander after an attempt at the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. There was damage to the lander from a fire.

Rocketplane Global hasn’t had any money for quite some time. Masten, Armadillo and Unreasonable are modestly funded start-ups that seem to be happy pursuing their own engine and vehicle development programs. Their vehicle designs have little in common with XCOR’s Lynx space plane.

Blue Origin — backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos — is off doing its own thing in nearly complete secrecy. The company has started lining up experiments for its suborbital flights, so that’s an encouraging sign toward operations. True to form, Blue Origin didn’t make any presentations during the conference.

Also absent were Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, partners in the SpaceShipTwo venture that is being developed at the same Mojave spaceport where XCOR is located. The project is certainly well funded by Richard Branson, and is widely seen as XCOR’s most direct competitor in terms of suborbital space. The company is charging $200,000 per seat for rides.

Virgin Galactic would seem to be doing well. WhiteKnightTwo has been undergoing test flights for nearly 18 months. SpaceShipTwo was rolled out publicly in December and had its first captive flight in late March. Scaled Composites website’s test log records the fourth SpaceShipTwo engine firing as having been conducted on March 30.

A week before the conference, Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn and Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough assured me in emails that SpaceShipTwo is on track for drop tests later this year and powered flights in early 2011.

“We do not share data on the rocket motor for a variety of reasons, including ITAR [U.S export law], but suffice to say we have done several tests and the latest at full power, the program is progressing smoothly,” Whitehorn wrote. “And we expect to start engine tests with the actual vehicle in the air next year leading to experimental flights in the upper atmosphere and then into space.”

The assurances were met with skepticism in off-the-record discussions held outside the presentation room. Despite the clear progress with WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, serious doubts were expressed about whether the spacecraft’s engine development is really on track.

In order to send SpaceShipTwo with six passengers and two crew to an altitude of 110 kilometers, Scaled Composites needs a very powerful engine – much more so than one used to send SpaceShipOne into space six years ago. The prototype was a small three-seater roughly the same size as the X-1 that Chuck Yeager flew in 1947. SpaceShipTwo is the size of a business jet.

Engine development has been troubled. In July 2007, a tank of nitrous oxide exploded during a flow test in Mojave, killing three Scaled Composites workers and injuring three others. Company officials seemed genuinely shocked that nitrous oxide, more commonly known as “laughing gas,” could suddenly burst a tank in that way. Work on SpaceShipTwo was halted for at least a year while engineers tried to determine what went wrong.

In August 2008, SpaceDev was brought into the project to oversee engine development and testing. The company, which is now part of Sierra Nevada Corporation, had earlier built and tested the engine for SpaceShipOne. Subsequently, Scaled Composites had brought propulsion development in house.

SpaceDev conducted three tests on the engine in April and May 2009. A press statement and video were released publicly in late May. The tests were hailed as a major milestone and proof that the project was on track. However, some who viewed the video thought the firings looked rather rough, with evidence of oscillation problems. The question is whether these are just normal testing issues or a sign of deeper problems with the propulsion system.

After those initial there tests, there appears to have been a lengthy gap in engine firings. According to the Scaled Composites website, the next test took place 10 months later, on March 30. The log indicates that all objectives were met on the test, as they were with previous firings.

We’ll see how the engine tests progress over the next year. Things may be moving along smoothly. Scaled Composites has certain overcome many problems in the past.

In the meantime, Greason says that XCOR is ready and willing to supply engines to any of its unnamed “well-funded competitors” that might need them. Yes, of course, by purchasing engines they would be helping to build up XCOR. But so what? Greason replied. We’d both be making money.