A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse of the XCOR Press Conference

The faces of the New Space Game: XCOR press conference, Dec. 2nd (© Space Lifestyle Magazine/Angela Kyle/Ian O'Neill)
The faces of the New Space Game: XCOR press conference, Dec. 2nd (© Space Lifestyle Magazine/Angela Kyle/Ian O'Neill)

In my second assignment for Space Lifestyle Magazine, I was sent to the plush Beverly Hilton (in Beverly Hills, CA) to sit in on a grand announcement by XCOR Aerospace. Having seen the operations behind another space commercialization company (SpaceX) I was keen to see how the two companies differed. Firstly, comparing XCOR with SpaceX would be like comparing apples with pears; they belong to the same family (i.e. fruit), but they taste entirely different.

For starters, SpaceX is focused on launching payloads into orbit. XCOR is a space tourism venture (with it’s closest competitor being Virgin Galactic). They do however, have some common ground: both build their own rockets and both have a very enthusiastic outlook for this emerging industry.

Tuesday was XCOR’s day, so my wife Debra, colleague Angela Kyle and myself were all treated to a great meeting in the Beverly Hilton (a location more commonly associated with Hollywood stars than spaceships) where XCOR communicated their vision to the world…

On walking into the Beverly Hilton, it was like opening the door into the Tardis; on the outside the hotel looks a little boxy and unremarkable (very much the 1970’s retro-look). Once you walk past valet parking, you can taste the opulence of this place. It is, after all, a five star hotel, but the Beverly Hilton has something else. I’ve seen a few five star hotels (although I don’t make a habit of it, I wish I could) but this building in the heart of Beverly Hills has a history, the pictures of “old Hollywood” celebrities tell the story. And on Tuesday, I couldn’t help but think another little bit of history was about to be made, not in the world of the celebrity superficial, in the world of NewSpace reality.

The Lynx makes its sub-orbital ascent (XCOR)
The Lynx makes its sub-orbital ascent (XCOR)

The plush Beverly Hilton was to be the scene of XCOR Aerospace’s announcement about joining forces with a space tourism company Rocketship Tours. All the XCOR top brass were there, including CEO and Founder Jeff Greason, Lynx test pilot and ex-NASA astronaut Col. Rick Searfoss, COO Andrew Nelson and first XCOR space tourist, Per Wimmer. Rocketship, founded by entrepreneur Jules Klar, has entered a rather exclusive industry where only the high-end company Space Adventures, and the much publicised Virgin Galactic has gone before. But Tuesday’s announcement goes further than a simple alliance; drawing from Klar’s 47 years of experience in the travel business, XCOR will be able to offer the most competitive ticket prices. On Tuesday, XCOR announced the first ever sub-$100K seat into space: $95,000.

We knew the cost of space tourism would fall as time went on, but the competitive wrangling has already begun, before even a single tourist flight has launched. XCOR, the new kid on the block (although Greason’s vision for affordable space flight has been in the making for nearly a decade), appears to be going head-to head with Virgin Galactic, undercutting their $200,000 asking price by over 50%. When I asked Greason whether he thought XCOR would make a dent on Virgin Galactic’s business, he replied with “there’s enough space for the both of us.” Taking Virgin Galactic business might not be a competitive reality yet, but on reviewing the cost of a flight into space, I know which company I’d choose (if I had a spare $95,000 hanging around).

 The XR-5M15 prototype engine is run at XCOR's test site on the Mojave Spaceport (XCOR)
The XR-5M15 prototype engine is run at XCOR's test site on the Mojave Spaceport (XCOR)

However, there needs to be some thought as to what XCOR and Virgin are offering their clients. Of course, they want to provide more than just the flight. There will be a package including flights in aerobatic aircraft (in the case of XCOR), there will be months of training and preparation for the “big day”. Although technically not an astronaut (an astronaut is a career choice, rather than a tourism choice), any space company will want their participants to indulge in their investment as much as possible, giving each fee-paying space tourist a taste of what it must be like to be an astronaut. The journey into sub-orbital altitudes will be vastly different for Virgin Galactic and XCOR customers; you fly higher with Virgin (110 km), but you experience it with seven other people. With the XCOR Lynx, it is a more “exclusive” affair: it’s just you and the pilot, launching like a conventional aircraft, but rapidly climbing to a maximum altitude of 60 km.

During the presentation, amongst the camera flashes and rounds of applause, XCOR gave the audience (comprised mainly of the media, future clients and other travel enthusiasts) a professional and open message: We’re here and we’re going to make some noise.

All the key players gave a talk, from Jeff Greason’s infectious hope for the future, to Jules Klar’s joy of being involved in the project. Per Wimmer and Rick Searfoss provided an insight to their thoughts on the Lynx spaceplane, selling the whole idea of affordable spaceflight alone. Wimmer, a Danish investment banker based in London, epitomises the first few who have taken this opportunity to fly beyond our atmosphere. He is a young adventurer who likens himself as being “someone between 007 and Indiana Jones,” which isn’t surprising, as in October he broke the record for a tandem skydive over Mount Everest and routinely explores the Amazon rainforest. If I was a successful investment banker, I’d like to think I’d be living that lifestyle; being launched on the first XCOR flight seems like a natural progression.

Flight profile of the Lynx (XCOR)
Flight profile of the Lynx (XCOR)

There is nothing like talking to an ex-astronaut to boost my enthusiasm for manned spaceflight. Fortunately we had the chance to interview Searfoss and my colleague Angela asked him about his feelings about experiencing space. The responses he provided were pure gold (and I have it all on video, along with accounts by Wimmer, Greason and Klar). His professionalism was obvious, an essential quality when being the only Lynx pilot on the roster.

For now, I’ll leave it at that. I am currently preparing a major article for Space Lifestyle Magazine based on the December 2nd meeting, including over an hour of video footage. The article will be published in the Spring 2009 quarterly edition.

The NewSpace industry is slowly taking shape and companies are gradually forging their own paths in this uncharted territory; I can’t help but think we are on the verge of a space flight revolution, let’s hope the momentum is maintained and we see the first space tourist flights by the end of next year, and the first XCOR flight by 2011…

If you want to check out my behind-the-scenes look at my adventures at the LA headquarters of Elon Musk’s NewSpace venture (SpaceX), be sure to check out the current Space Lifestyle Magazine edition. It turned out to be a very revealing report…

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