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The stealth rocketeers

XCOR Aerospace
Click for video: The Lynx Mark I rocket plane, shown in this artist's
conception, would fly to an altitude of 38 miles (61 kilometers) and
serve as a test bed for a higher-flying Lynx Mark II. Click on the image
to watch a video from XCOR's March announcement about the Lynx.

Last week was a good week for Virgin Galactic, a not-so-good week for SpaceX, and a fantastic week for XCOR Aerospace, which provided the engine for the Rocket Racing League's first custom-built aerial racer. The rocket plane performed without a hitch three times during last week's EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis. - marking a new milestone on XCOR's stealthier route to outer space.

While Virgin Galactic and SpaceX aren't shy about talking about their future plans, XCOR (based in Mojave, Calif., just down the street from where Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two was rolled out for the first time last week) usually stays in the background. That's partly because the company does so much work for clients who prefer to speak for themselves, such as the Rocket Racing League, NASA or the Defense Department.

XCOR's strategy is to build on the rocket work it does for others to get to its eventual goal of producing its own spaceships. For example, the single kerosene-fueled engine on the Bridenstine DKNY Rocket Racer that was demonstrated last week lays the groundwork for the four-engine Lynx Mark I rocket plane that XCOR plans to fly in 2010.

XCOR spokesman Doug Graham said the rocket racer's engine won't be identical to the Lynx's engine, "but it's very close to what it's going to be."

The big difference is that XCOR installed its propulsion system into an existing Velocity airframe for the Rocket Racing League, but will be building the whole plane for the Lynx project.

Develoment on track
XCOR laid out its plans for the Lynx back in March, and Graham said the development effort is still on track. Test flights are due to start in early 2010, but Graham said he couldn't predict when passenger service will start.

Each of the Lynx Mark I's engines is projected to have twice the power of the 1,500-pound-thrust engine on the rocket racer. That should be enough to bring the Lynx up to an altitude of 38 miles (61 kilometers).

Technically, it's not spaceflight, because you won't cross the internationally recognized 100-kilometer boundary line for outer space. But the flight profile would give you about 90 seconds of weightlessness and a thrilling 4 G's of acceleration on the way down. (Shuttle astronauts typically experience 3 G's.)

The Lynx's two-seater cockpit doesn't give you enough space to float around like you would aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. But you'd get the feeling of riding shotgun alongside the rocket pilot. You'd still see a broad Earth curving beneath the dark sky of space, and you'd be looking through the cockpit's wrap-around windows instead of SpaceShipTwo-style portholes.

"It's designed for the view, it's not designed for low gravity," XCOR's vice president and chief engineer, Dan DeLong, explained at the Oshkosh air show.

A builder, not an operator
How much will it cost? XCOR won't be setting the price, because it's positioning itself as a aircraft builder rather than a tour operator. However, the company expects that tour operators (likely including Virginia-based Space Adventures) will be able to charge less than $100,000 for a half-hour flight. In comparison, Virgin Galactic's price tag for a suborbital space tour is $200,000.

Just as the rocket racer sets the stage for the Lynx Mark I, the Mark I is designed to set the stage for a Mark II space plane that would cross the line into outer space. The time frame hasn't been announced for that next step, but Graham said "it's actually not as far down the line as you might think."

The spaceworthy version of the Lynx will incorporate some additional innovations, including XCOR's patented "nonburnite" composite material, which will be used in the fabrication of the future craft's cryogenic liquid-oxygen tanks. XCOR is planning to build those tanks right into the space plane's wings.

It may sound like a giant leap, but XCOR has a knack for breaking down giant leaps into more manageable small steps - just as the company has done with its propulsion system.

"You're no longer having to promise something that still has to be developed," Graham explained. "It's something that's already flying."

And XCOR's executives are making sure they'll be able to fly on whatever they produce. Even though the Lynx cockpit may look small, DeLong said it was being designed to give extra space for passengers who weigh as much as 280 pounds. That way, even a big-boned aerospace engineer (or, for that matter, aerospace journalist) will be able to take a ride.

"We just want to go," DeLong said.

Update for 6:45 p.m. ET: In case you missed it, here's the video of the rocket racer's first public exhibition flight, courtesy of the Rocket Racing League. I've provided the archived MSNBC video about the Lynx at the top of this item, but if you'd prefer to watch the animation of a future flight without commentary, here it is.