Friday, October 10, 2008

A Salute as XCOR Completes Flight Testing, Sets Records

The flight test program at XCOR Aerospace for their version of the Rocket Racer has drawn to a close with a flurry of flights that set several informal records at the Mojave Air and Space Port. 

On October 1, the XCOR team flew the Rocket Racer seven times, setting the unofficial record for most flights of a rocket-powered aircraft in a single day. According to XCOR's research, the previous record was three flights in a day by a German ME-163 Komet rocket-powered fighter aircraft during World War II. (In an interesting rocket-world twist, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who was the money behind Rutan's SpaceShipOne, purchased one of the surviving ME-163s back in May, 2005...I guess the guy really likes rockets!) 

The seven Rocket Racer flights put Mojave on the map as the site of more manned rocket-powered flights this century than any other locale in the world; in fact, with 51.3%, it's more than all the other places combined. (And for the record, Kennedy Space Center is second with 19.5% and Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is third with 13.5%.) In her enthusiasm, one XCOR teammember summed it up nicely:  "Seven rocket flights in one day: unofficial record. Mojave Spaceport rocks!"

The XCOR team has the turn-around process down to an art, and can refuel the Racer with kerosene, LOX and helium in under 8 1/2 minutes. 

On the very last flight, pilot Rick Searfoss pushed the Racer higher and longer than on any previous flight, reaching 10,000 feet and lasting 20 minutes, with two mid-flight relights. At that distance, the plane itself disappeared from view, with only the tiny bright star-like rocket plume to marks its place in the sky.

For the XCOR team, completion of the Rocket Racer program means that they can now focus their attention on what XCOR CEO Jeff Greason calls their "third generation rocket-propelled vehicle", the Lynx, a two-seat sub-orbital rocket plane, with which they hope to break into the commercial space tourism market. And to talk to the team, they seem quite excited about moving on to this. Searfoss summed up the customer's experience in the Lynx nicely when he said, "...the best part of it all is that you’ll ride right up front, like a co-pilot, instead of in back, like cargo."

The future of the Rocket Racer is in the hands of the Rocket Racing League, which has carefully stage-managed all media access to their program. Original indications were that both the XCOR and the Armadillo engines would be available to the race teams. Oddly, when RRL announced that the Armadillo test aircraft had finally gotten airborne, the media release read (which you can read in full here) "The Rocket Racing League today announced the successful results of the first seven test flights of the Bridenstine DKNY Rocket Racer® conducted at the Oklahoma Spaceport (OKSP), a leading facility specializing in horizontal takeoff and landing of Reusable Launch Vehicles, in Burns Flat, Oklahoma." 

The release made no mention whatsoever of the XCOR program, which has been flying for a lot longer than Armadillo's, and it sound like the Bridenstine DKNY Rocket Racer itself had been taken to Oklahoma and re-engined. The release went on to quote Bill Khourie, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority (OSIDA) saying, “We are thrilled to have been selected as the facility of choice by the Rocket Racing League for its initial flight test program.” Initial? No, that's been under way right here in Mojave for months, folks. Quite clearly, Oklahoma is trying to posture itself as giving Mojave some competition, although with the records just set, Mojave doesn't have to look over its shoulder just yet....

(Note: the photo of the Racer climbing inverted was from a July test flight, and the two photos of the XCOR engine were taken during XCOR's open house during the Rutan Birthday Bash.)

XCOR Press Release

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