Cargo's final frontier
XCOR has a $60 million plus backlog of orders for Lynx suborbital vehicles, flights on Lynx, and its reusable rocket engines. Its longer-term objective is a two-stage orbital system that is large enough to deliver people or payloads to the ISS or other space stations. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is the only crewed suborbital vehicle in flight test today; it was developed from SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the world’s first privately developed manned spacecraft. Vehicles now being built for Virgin Galactic by Mojave-based Scaled Composites will carry up to six customers on sub-orbital space flights from the operator’s future headquarters at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic’s two-vehicle system involves a mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, carrying a suborbital spaceship, SpaceShipTwo, to an altitude of 50,000 feet before releasing it to fire its rocket engine and fly to space. The company is testing the vehicles both mated together on “captive carry” flights and on glide flights, where SpaceShipTwo is released to fly free, as will happen on commercial flights.
William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Galactic, says passenger seats can be removed for research flights, but the near-term ambition is to offer the research community longer periods of microgravity than it can get from current drop towers or parabolic flights.
NASA has so far chartered one full flight of SpaceShipTwo, with options for two additional flights. The craft is not designed to reach orbit, so it could not deliver cargo. But Pomerantz says Virgin Galactic and its founder, Sir Richard Branson, are targeting orbital flights as something for the future.