SwRI’s Lynx and SSTwo Flights: A Comparison

The Southwest Research Institute has signed deals with both XCOR and Virgin Galactic to fly research scientists on the Lynx and SpaceShipTwo vehicles, respectively. Both deals are being touted as historic firsts for emerging industry. Are they both right? Yes, actually.

Confused? Let me explain.

According to XCOR:

In a first for the reusable suborbital launch vehicle industry, XCOR Aerospace announced today that the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a commercial entity, has purchased six suborbital flights to carry SwRI experiments and payload specialists.  This is the first such contract SwRI has issued, and XCOR is proud to be chosen for this opportunity.

Each of the six flights will include a SwRI trained principal investigator / payload specialist.  This group of talented individuals includes Dr. Alan Stern, former NASA Associate Administrator for Science, Dr. Dan Durda who has flown research missions in NASA f-18s and Dr. Cathy Olkin, an experienced SwRI researcher and former NASA astronaut candidate. On these flights, the SwRI payload specialists will perform research using biomedical, microgravity, and astronomy imaging experiments conceived and prepared for flight at SwRI. SwRI has an option to purchase three additional flights at any time, providing more value significant flexibility for experimental research.

Gear down. (Photo: Mark Greenberg)

Now, the Virgin Galactic announcement:

Virgin Galactic’s signed contract with the Southwest Research Institute is the first such agreement to fly scientists into space (over 100 kilometers or 328,000 feet above the Earth), enabling valuable microgravity, biology, climate and astronomy research.

As part of the contract announced today, SwRI has made full deposits for two researchers to fly on Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft, with the intent to make similar arrangements for an additional six seats for a total value of $1.6m. As well as flying its own researchers, who will carry scientific experiments developed by its in-house technical staff, SwRI also aims to assist American researchers who do not have direct spaceflight experience to develop and fly their payloads and personnel on suborbital missions.

OK. So, what’s the difference?

The XCOR deal is for flights aboard the Lynx Mark I prototype, which will reach an altitude of about 60 kilometers. The follow-on vehicle, Lynx Mark II, will fly above 100 kilometers, which is the recognized border of space.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic’s contract “is the first such agreement to fly scientists into space (over 100 kilometers or 328,000 feet above the Earth).” Getting above 100 kilometers will produce a longer period of microgravity.

So, therein lies the difference. It will be interesting to see how the flight schedules for these vehicles work out.

An interesting element of this: XCOR released its announcement on Thursday, which I initially thought was a mistake because it was overwhelmed by coverage of the space shuttle Discovery launch. It turns out I was wrong. The intent was to announce a deal first. It looks like XCOR is getting more sophisticated in its public relations. Bravo! Well played, sir. Well played.