Civilians Have New Option for Spaceflight
This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press, Monday, Wednesday, December 3, 2008. By Allison Gatlin, Valley Press Staff Write
LOS ANGELES – Would-be civilian astronauts have another option for spaceflight, as XCOR Aerospace on Tuesday announced ticket sales for its forthcoming Lynx spacecraft.
The Mojave-based company has teamed with RocketShip Tours to offer tour packages that culminate in a rocket-powered flight to the edge of space.
“At XCOR, it’s always been our goal to really solve the space transportation problem, to make space transportation much safer, much more routine, much more affordable than it’s ever been,” XCOR CEO Jeff Greason said. “The Lynx is our next step in that quest.”
The rocket company always planned to be a wholesale provider of spaceflight hardware while teaming with others with the expertise to provide the tourism aspect of the operation.
“At XCOR we’re engineers,” Greason said. “From the beginning, we knew the people who are going to design and fly this rocket are not the same people who need to ensure that every customer gets the most from their experience or build up the sales channels or sell the tickets.”
Phoenix, Ariz.-based RocketShip Tours’ founder, Jules Klar, has more than 40 years’ experience in providing unique travel services, beginning with popularizing European travel for the masses with $5-A-Day Tours. More recently, he has specialized in luxury cruises and adventure tours, including such exotic destinations as Antarctica.
“Little did I realize when I started $5-A-Day Tours in the early ’60s that I’d be standing here before you today talking about selling tickets on a $95,000 flight to the edge of space,” Klar said. “This is the reality of today. We’re in the 21st century, and it’s incumbent upon mankind to open new vistas, new doors.”
Tickets for the suborbital spaceflight experience aboard Lynx are on sale for $95,000, a significant drop from competitors’ advertised ticket sales.
The best-known space tourism outfit, Virgin Galactic, has sold more than 270 tickets at approximately $200,000 each.
“This is a monumental opportunity for folks to realize their dreams to fly to space,” XCOR Chief Operating Officer Andrew Nelson said during Tuesday’s press conference to announce the partnership.
Before even formally setting up sales through the adventure travel company – let alone completing the rocketplane – XCOR has sold 22 tickets in advance.
“We’re very excited that we’ve already seen significant early demand,” Nelson said.
Klar said XCOR’s team and their impressive body of work – more than 3,500 successful reusable rocket firings – and “rather remarkable” safety record convinced him this was the company he wanted to partner with to offer private spaceflight opportunities.
The $95,000 ticket is not just a rocket ship ride, but “a complete and total experience,” Klar said.
Potential passengers will undergo physical and mental preparations, including a five-night stay at an Arizona luxury resort for training.
The stay will include orientation, briefings and medical evaluations and will culminate with a spin in an aerobatic aircraft to measure passengers’ ability to withstand the forces they will experience during the spaceflight.
Passengers will also undergo additional medical evaluation and briefings by XCOR as the flight time approaches, Klar said.
Tickets will be sold internationally through certified agents who have been trained by RocketShip Tours.
“This isn’t selling a ticket from Los Angeles to Las Vegas,” Klar said. “It’s far more involved.”
The current global economic downturn does not seem to be affecting demand for these kinds of experiences, Nelson said.
Customers who pay the full ticket price up front will have priority placement in the passenger pool. Customers may also pay a $20,000 deposit to go through initial training, then will be inserted in the pool once the remaining $75,000 is paid.
The Lynx’s first passenger will be Danish investment banker and adventurer Per Wimmer, introduced during Tuesday’s press conference.
Wimmer’s most recent adventure was the first tandem sky dive from Mount Everest.
“I’m a pioneer. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m an adventurer,” Wimmer said. “I’m also a financier and, above all, I’m a space enthusiast.”
He established Wimmer Space with the express goal of launching himself into space.
In the process, he hopes to inspire young children to live out their dreams, whatever those dreams may be. “I hope to become a good ambassador in that regard,” he said.
Wimmer examined XCOR’s past accomplishments and safety record before deciding to become its first paying customer.
“XCOR has a fantastic track record of just doing things, not talking about them,” he said.
“One thing that is absolutely key for a person like me, an adventurer, is the safety profile. We want to make sure that we get a great ride and a great experience, but also that we come back to share the experience with you,” he said.
Wimmer also believes that XCOR’s low-cost model has the “potential for transforming what was yesterday into the future.”
Perhaps hedging his bets to ensure an eventual spaceflight, Wimmer has also booked a spaceflight with Virgin Galactic and has completed his first astronaut training session with that carrier, according to his Web site.
“I can think of nothing more exciting, having done all these things on Earth, getting ready for the ultimate trip of a lifetime, the trip into space,” he said.
XCOR’s rocketplane, dubbed the Lynx Mark 1, will carry the pilot and a single passenger to the edge of space, high enough to provide passengers a brief period of weightlessness, “a view of stars and black sky above, letting them look back down on Earth and the thin envelope of atmosphere below,” Greason said in announcing the project in March.
The Lynx will take off horizontally from a standard airport runway under rocket power and quickly climb to 138,000 feet at speeds reaching Mach 2.
It will glide the remaining distance to the final altitude of 200,000 feet, where passengers will feel between one and two minutes of weightlessness before the spacecraft begins its gliding descent to a runway landing.
XCOR’s chief test pilot, former space shuttle commander Rick Searfoss, said the flight will offer much the same sensations as his NASA flights.
“All of the things I experienced flying the shuttle, all of those phases of flight are there – the boost, weightlessness,” Searfoss said.
The experience is enhanced by the fact that the passenger has a front-row seat, beside the pilot.
“This is more like the ‘Right Stuff’ kind of experience,” he said.
At the apex of the flight, passengers will experience brief weightlessness, then “you’ll have several minutes to enjoy the view and enjoy for yourself the sensation of being where so few have gone before,” Greason said.
“For me, far and away, the visual impact is the best part of it,” Searfoss said. “To see that thin blue line of the atmosphere, see the curvature of the Earth, that is virtually a spiritual experience, and it’s one that I cannot wait to share over and over and over again with our participants.”
The entire flight is expected to last about 30 minutes, with roughly 20 minutes spent in the gliding descent.
The 200,000-feet altitude goal for the Lynx Mark 1 is lower than the 360,000 feet reached by SpaceShipOne in 2004 and the stated altitude for its commercial passenger descendant, to be operated by Virgin Galactic.
The second-generation Lynx Mark 2 is expected to reach the same 360,000-foot mark.
The spacecraft is under development at XCOR’s facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port, where the test flight program and initial commercial service is also expected to take place.
The project is on track for a first flight in 2010, Greason said.
The flight test program will follow until the company is convinced of its safety and reliability, but it is possible that the first passenger flight could take place in 2011.
The Lynx project builds on XCOR’s recent success with the Rocket Racer, a rocket-powered airplane whose engines are the precursor to those that will be used on Lynx.