XCOR and other companies to fly suborbital flights for NASA


XCOR Aerospace has been contracted by NASA to bring engineers, scientists and equipment into suborbital space for experiments in its low-gravity environment. NASA has awarded six other companies, including Virgin Galactic, contracts worth US$10 million to provide similar services.

The awards were announced by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Programme, a part of NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist.
“Through this award, NASA has recognized XCOR’s Lynx suborbital vehicle as a useful payload platform that will benefit both NASA’s R&D needs and the private research, scientific, and educational communities,” said Jeff Greason, XCOR CEO. “By encouraging and incentivising frequent, low cost access to space, NASA is helping to ensure America’s future as a leader in space.”

XCOR’s suborbital reusable launch vehicle, Lynx, is capable of up to four flights per day to over 100 kilometres altitude. The Lynx will provide three to four minutes of microgravity as well as, if desired, exposure to the harsh environment of space. This will provide opportunities to investigate the largely unexplored regions of our upper atmosphere, XCOR said.

Last week NASA announced that Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, had been selected to fly scientists and other personnel into space.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is the only crewed suborbital vehicle currently in flight testing, and the only such vehicle based on a spacecraft that has already sent humans into space, the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne.
“The Flight Opportunities programme is an efficient research programme that leverages investment in private vehicles to drive new discoveries for researchers and real benefits for taxpayers,” said George Whitesides, President and CEO of Virgin Galactic.

NASA has also selected Whittinghill Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, Up Aerospace and Masten Space Systems for two-year research contracts.

Private space research has taken off in a big way, especially with the retirement of the US space shuttle programme. NASA is looking at a 2015/2016 timeframe for developing a new vehicle to take crew into orbit following the space shuttle’s retirement, but NASA officials said that this is dependent on private industry.

One successful private space enterprise that has launched a space capsule into orbit is SpaceX. In December 2010 it became the first private company to successfully launch and retrieve its own space capsule from orbit. NASA chief Charles Bolden said the achievement was ‘awesome’. SpaceX is working on a launch that will carry cargo to space later this year.

The December launch was part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme, which will provide cargo flights to the ISS. NASA awarded SpaceX a launch services contract in 2008 that allowed it to compete for missions using its Falcon launch vehicles. SpaceX will make a dozen flights to carry cargo to the ISS after the shuttle retires, according to PCMag.

However, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and XCOR are not alone as there are more than half a dozen other companies working on commercial space flight, including Orbital Sciences, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Alliant Techsystems and Excalibur Almaz. In addition, in September last year Boeing announced it was partnering with Space Adventures to sell commercial space flights aboard its seven-seat CST-100 spacecraft, which should be operational by 2015.

In March Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace announced the first commercial contracts to fly scientists into space as part of the emerging commercial suborbital space market.

Virgin Galactic signed a contract with the Colorado-based Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) for two tickets to space and has six more seats reserved for the institute. The deal is the first agreement Virgin Galactic has signed with scientists – up until now, all the company’s deposits have been from space tourists who want to fly on SpaceShipTwo.

SwRI also partnered with XCOR Aerospace to take scientists and their experiments on six flights aboard the Lynx.