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Company's dreams skyrocket
Private firm tests civilian spacecraft

November 24, 2001.

By ALLISON GATLIN
Valley Press Staff Writer

MOJAVE - It's a small company with big dreams, already flying the world's first privately built, rocket-powered airplane.

Incorporated in September 1999, XCOR Aerospace officially made its presence known to the rest of the world Nov. 12, with the rollout of its EZ-Rocket, a Long-EZ kit plane modified with powerful rocket engines.

The successful test flights of those rocket engines are the first baby steps toward civilian access to space, according to the company's founders.

XCOR Aerospace is developing safe, reusable, routinely operable rocket engines with the intent of opening up private, commercial access to space.

XCOR is "all about making rocket-powered transportation commercially viable," said founder and CEO Jeff Greason.

The company has settled in at the Mojave Airport, also known as the Civilian Flight Test Center. It's a site long known for innovations in aerospace, home to Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites and the Voyager aircraft. In fact, famed Voyager pilot Dick Rutan is XCOR's test pilot.

"There's really no other place in the world where we could do this," said Rich Pournelle, director of business development.

"It's like an incubator for aerospace companies," Greason said. "I can't tell you the number of times we've swapped tools" and expertise with other companies at the airport.

The XCOR founders were already familiar with the atmosphere at the Mojave Airport when the company started out two years ago: they had worked for now-defunct Rotary Rocket, also based at the airport.

Two months after its incorporation, XCOR had produced a reliable ignition system. From there, the rocket scientists developed a small engine fixed to a portable stand called a "teacart," which was used to demonstrate the engine at the Space Access Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., in April 2000. The demonstration - in the hotel ballroom - brought in the company's first two investors.

Since then, XCOR's 10 employees have progressed to the engines in the EZ-Rocket, which are capable of providing 400 pounds of thrust each.

The small team working closely together has been instrumental in the company's success, according to Greason.

They have created a culture in which everyone is equally responsible for the success of their product, where there is no hierarchy or strict division of duties.

"I could only do it with a small team," he said. "When you're doing something completely different, you have to have a small team."

The company's philosophy for developing its rocket engines is to take small, incremental steps, slowly building on what is learned each step of the way.

"We've learned an awful lot about things we didn't know needed to be learned," Greason said.

In March 2001, the company was awarded a $300,000 contract from the National Reconnaissance Office to develop small rocket motors for satellites that used non-toxic fuels. Work on those engines has recently been completed, and the company expects to use them on its own next-generation rocket vehicles.

Building that next-generation vehicle is the next step in XCOR's plan. While finishing the final test flights with the EZ-Rocket, the company is seeking investors to finance a higher-performing vehicle to move closer to routine space travel.

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