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Start-ups vie for clear skies
Push is on to offer space flight


The latest shuttle disaster hasn't slowed a growing grassroots movement to send backyard rocketeers into space.

"There has been a great bit of interest among space aficionados - that's not a huge group - but there has been a growing interest in taking people into space," said Chuck Kline, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration's office of the associate administrator for commercial space transport.

Commercial space travel is growing in interest and in capabilities, Kline said.

Although only major world governments currently have the technology and funding to send people to space, private endeavors are close enough that Kline said the FAA is working to catch up with needed regulations that will oversee the industry as it matures.

Among those private companies is XCOR Aerospace in Mojave, Calif.

The FAA is in contact with 15 to 25 such companies that dream of touching the stars, Kline said, but XCOR is closer than most. The company already has developed and tested a 400-pound thrust rocket engine and might be well on its way to designing a craft capable of reaching low Earth orbit.

"We're showing that you can fly a rocket-propelled vehicle multiple times a day for a reasonable price and with a small team of mechanics - not a large group of Ph.D.s in white coats," said Dan DeLong, vice president and chief engineer of the company.

The rocket-plane that XCOR is currently test-flying - the EZ-Rocket - is far from the company's final goal. Built around a somewhat common experimental plane normally powered by a rear-mounted propeller, the plane sticks to altitudes common to conventional planes.

But the plane is not conventional. It is testing equipment designed to take the company's ideas much higher.

DeLong estimated that his company is still a few years from testing the Xerus, its prototype suborbital vehicle. But he said it's not so much a matter of if as when.

"We're doing baby steps," DeLong said. "The next step is always a small one."

Small steps are the only way in this particular line of work. The private rocketry industry has had its misfires, DeLong acknowledged.

He was a part of one early venture that got off the ground literally, but never could launch in the minds of its investors. Rotary Rocket Co. is a now-defunct corporation that was developing what looked like a 60-foot-tall salt shaker with a propeller on top.

"I myself had some questions about that design," DeLong said, noting that the company never left the launch pad after its bank accounts atrophied.

That may not be all that's atrophied about some big-dreaming would-be rocketeers, but Chris Hall, an associate professor in Virginia Tech's department of aerospace and ocean engineering, said there are very good reasons to look to these upstart companies as the aerospace leaders of the future.

Questioning the government's ability to get the job done, he pointed to government study recommendations that came out of the Challenger disaster calling for a better launch vehicle. "That was 20 years ago and you see where we are now," he said.

"There's lots of reasons for thinking that it has to be done by the government," Hall said, but the real exploration of the past relied heavily on the sweat and risks of individuals. "I think NASA has done a lot of great things, but being a pioneer and being a pioneering country, this is what we have to do."

Despite NASA disasters, private companies are cranking on, and they're doing it with an optimism that makes their big government competitor look like a naysayer. While NASA's next-generation manned-flight push looks to 20 to 30 years out, XCOR and its competitor companies are dreaming in the five-to-10-year range.

"Industry will do a better job," Hall said, calling the five-year timetable very possible, especially if NASA were willing to fund some of the private projects without attempting to take the reigns.

"I don't think they should just be throwing the money out to everybody willy-nilly, but the whole idea of commercial launch vehicles needs to be emphasized," he said. "Then NASA and the government would buy vehicles from those companies."

Unless that government funding becomes available, the key to making private industry's space dreams a reality is finding other markets to support such flights. The only way to do that is to bring costs to a level attainable by more than just the fabulously wealthy, DeLong said.

XCOR plans to eventually offer tour flights of space for under $100,000 per passenger.

Currently, it costs a minimum of $2 million to buy significant space on commercial rockets that carry only nonliving payloads such as scientific experiments or small satellites. Dennis Tito, the billionaire who became the first U.S. space tourist two years ago, paid more than $20 million to hop a ride on a Russian space hop.

XCOR's designs are for its Xerus suborbital vehicle, which could carry three people into the lower reaches of space, land safely and then relaunch within hours.

The task of finding investors willing to sink money into such risky ventures is nearly as great as defeating the Earth's gravity, said the FAA's Kline.

"The problem is the whole chicken and egg thing," said Kline, who has watched many a venture come and go. "If they can't get their money, they can't afford to demonstrate their technology. And if they can't demonstrate the technology, they can't get their money."

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