A former NASA astronaut may soon be shuttling wealthy passengers to space four times a day for upstart aerospace firm Xcor, taking on not only a challenging technical feat but also billionaire Richard Branson.
Rick Seafross piloted two Space Shuttle flights and served as commander of a third mission, spending 939 total hours in space. He hopes that in the very near future he will be transporting paying passengers (Seafross calls them “spaceflight participants”) to an altitude of 330,000 feet aboard Xcor’s Lynx spacecraft.
Seafross was in Windsor Locks April 1 speaking to visitors at the New England Air Museum.
Xcor, founded in 1999, has focused its business on innovating rocket design. Lynx is inspired by Xcor’s rocket-powered racing planes that Seafross piloted for the company. The racing plane holds the record for the most flights in one day by a rocket aircraft as well as the fastest turnaround time.
“Xcor has flown more than half of the rocket propelled human flights this millenia,” Seafross said, “Most of them have been tiny rocket powered airplanes versus space shuttles or soyuz. But the technology is scalable and points out the whole repeatability and reusability that we’ve developed.”
Seafross says the reusability and fast turnaround time of the Lynx design allows the company to charge $95,000 for the 30 minute flight. This is half the $200,000 price charged by their competitor, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for a similar experience.
And Seafross says the flight won’t disappoint thrill seekers.
“[It’s] more of a right stuff experience.”
Each flight will only include the passenger and pilot. Both will sit up front in pressure suits with a panoramic window offering a full field of view similar to a Space Shuttle. The rocket plane will take off from a runway, bringing the pilot and passenger to an altitude of 190,000 feet in just three minutes. The humans aboard will experience the same G-forces experienced by shuttle astronauts.
Once the engines shut down the plane will continue climbing to 330,000 feet on its own momentum. During that five minute period weightlessness will be experienced until the Earth’s gravity eventually pulls Lynx back to towards the ground. The passengers will then experience intense G-forces – up to four times normal gravity and double that of the Space Shuttle when it returns to earth. Lynx will land on the same runway from which it takes off.
While paying passengers will be the initial customers, Xcor is working on other launch services. The company has plans to carry experiments as well as launching small 100 pound satellites to orbit with a second stage rocket that will deploy from Lynx.
“We think the suborbital research market is going to be bigger than tourism. The eventual micro-satellite deployment market will be bigger than that,” Seafross said.
Seafross says the company is not currently competing with other commercial firms like SpaceX and Boeing for International Space Station missions. But the company’s focus on tourism and small satellite deployment could pave the way for new markets and ultimately lower cost trips to space. No official start date has been announced, but the Lynx is currently under construction at the company’s Mojave, California headquarters.