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Photograph by Felix Adamo

'Baby Step' toward civilians in space - Private Rocket Tested

Californian correspondent
The Bakersfield Californian (Reproduced with permission)

MOJAVE--If you've ever wanted to blast into space without joining some kind of expensive government program, your day could come sooner than you think.

A small band of rocket scientists calling itself XCOR Aerospace fired up the world's first private rocket plane here Monday morning, sending famed test pilot Dick Rutan on a 90-second thrill ride down the runway of the Mojave Airport Civilian Flight Test Center.

"This is just the first baby step for civilian access to space," XCOR test pilot Rutan said after the EZ-Rocket's single flight. "It's significant because the propulsion is totally rocket-powered."

Rutan has set several world flying records in his 45 years as a pilot, including his famous 1985 nonstop flight around the world in the Voyager, an aircraft designed by his brother, Burt Rutan.

What XCOR engineers have done is modified a basic, build-it-yourself Long-EZ airplane by replacing the propeller with a rocket engine capable of 400 pounds of thrust.

Neither Rutan nor the engineers expressed any doubts about having someone climb into a cockpit barely three feet from a rocket engine. Safety and reliability are the watch words at XCOR, according to Rich Pournelle, director of business development, who said reusable launch vehicles will prove themselves with each flight making them safer than expendable vehicles.

A regular Long-EZ can reach a top speed of 190 knots, or just more than 200 mph. The rocket engine could easily hurl the small airplane to greater speeds, but that's not allowed to happen, said Pournelle, because the plane would break.

And actually, the EZ-Rocket itself is just the testing platform for the rocket engine, which could someday power all sorts of aircraft. The company's even been approached by a land speed company that might someday install the rocket on one of its cars to set a new land speed record.

But besides the novelty factor of creating a working rocket plane, there's the serious business of developing a reusable rocket engine for reusable launch vehicles. That would lower the cost of sending astronauts, scientists, business people, tourists and commercial shipments into space, Pournelle said, and XCOR has a phased research and development plan aimed at the reusable launch market.

The company also has a government contract to develop nontoxic rocket fuel. The EZ-Rocket flies on a mixture of isopropyl alcohol and liquid oxygen. That's the same kind of rubbing alcohol you might find in the medicine cabinet but at a higher level of purity.

As much as possible, XCOR uses existing technologies.

"We're not reinventing how rockets are done. We're just trying to perfect them," Pournelle said. "Other companies are working on reusable launch vehicles too, and we'd love to supply them with these reusable rocket engines. It's a small community." The EZ-Rocket was on display at the Experimental Aircraft Association's 2001 AirVenture show in Wisconsin in July and will make the rounds of air shows throughout 2002.

Monday's test flight was run at 70 percent of full power, or 300 pounds of force. Test director Buzz Lange pronounced the flight a success despite a small fuel leak that prevented further flights. "The leak will be fixed before the next round of testing," Lange said. That next test should be interesting because XCOR plans to power the EZ-Rocket with two rocket engines for a combined potential of 800 pounds of thrust.

The twin engine plane is expected to be ready by the end of the month.

After those runway tests are complete, XCOR will be ready to send a rocket plane 60 miles up into suborbital flight--into space, but not into orbit.

Given Mojave's recent history as a center for cutting-edge aviation design, and the desert's wide open skies, "This is the best place to do this kind of testing," Lange said.

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