Making spaceships takes years of research and significant amounts of capital.
That’s why the big names in the private space sector all seem to be founded by billionaires who love space: Elon Musk with SpaceX, Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic.
Of course, there are exceptions. One of those exceptions is XCOR Aerospace, a small company based in California’s Mojave Desert (with expansion to both Texas and Florida in the coming months).
By taking a different approach to rocket engine design based on simplification and iteration, XCOR has created a spacecraft that will be able take off like a plane, reach space in three minutes, conduct scientific experiments, and safely glide back to Earth – four times a day and for a fraction of the price of the rockets traditionally used for scientific work in space.
During a tour of XCOR’s hangar at Mojave’s Air and Space Port, I was able to see how XCOR’s iterative design philosophy has enabled its engineers to make a vessel that’s turning heads in the space industry despite having a minuscule research and development budget compared to its peers.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
Besides the rocket, an array of solar panels in the middle of the space port hints at the technology hiding within the various warehouses...
The key to its engineering is the company's innovative use of a fuel pump very similar in design to the engine in your car.
This fuel pump allows XCOR engines to be significantly cheaper, more reliable, and more reusable than what the rest of the industry is making.
This also allows the ship's fuel to be carried in thinner and lighter tanks than traditional designs, which use turbine pumps and require high-pressure tanks.
XCOR operates under a fast, iterative philosophy similar to what one sees at many software-based tech startups.
They can do this because of the advanced sensors and computer-aided design software available today.
It's amazing to see the end-result of this approach: An engine that can take two people to space in minutes that's the same size as the engine in a full-size truck.
This iteration applies to more than just the engine. A fibreglass cockpit with the proportions of the Lynx allows the team to make changes without altering or potentially damaging the expensive carbon fibre of a production model.
Surprisingly, many of the readouts are mechanical, not digital. This is also true for the flight controls: Lynx pilots are directly manipulating the vessel with the controls, rather than relying on an electronic 'fly-by-wire' system.
... XCOR has already built two rocket-powered vehicles capable of flight. Here's their prototype X-Racer flying in 2008.
When the company's engineers state that the Lynx will fly in the next two years, it's difficult not to get excited.
That's when work will begin in earnest on the Lynx Mk. III, which will fly many times a day (compared to current standards) and have more room for scientific instruments, like satellites or telescopes.
However, the Lynx isn't going to let you commute from Los Angeles to San Francisco. For that, we have the Hyperloop.
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