Follow the Build: Strake Update


We kick back into gear on subsystem updates in an interview with Brandon Litt. Among his other responsibilities, Brandon is in charge of the Lynx strakes.

The strakes are the large structural sections of the airframe just inboard of the wings. They are the primary structure that attaches the wings to the spacecraft, and each strake (one on the port side, the other on the starboard side) contains the following: four kerosene fuel tanks, the main landing gear, and two reaction control thrusters that will control the Lynx when outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.


Left to right: Engineers Mike Valant and Brandon Litt prepare to test fit a custom titanium beam into the Lynx strake.

BC: So what’s the status of the strakes right now?

BL: Well we have  both port and starboard side strakes in house.

Currently we are working on some final carbon fiber layups. Things like fabricating closeouts for the access hatches, landing gear bay doors, etc.

 BC: What does that mean?

BL: In several locations around the strakes we’ve got these large access penetrations where we can reach inside and do plumbing or electrical work on the vehicle.

These holes need to be closed-out so we have a smooth aerodynamic shape. The doors will be flush with the skin and can be removed for vehicle maintenance. You could also call them access panels.

BC: What comes after that? What does it take to get us to flight?

BL: After that we are progressing on to main gear installation, and then final vehicle integration.

First, each main gear assembly needs to be attached to the strakes. The gear will be hanging from custom designed titanium beams that are mounted inside of the strakes. The picture above shows me and my colleague Mike Valant doing a test fit of the titanium beam in the port side strake.


Brandon Litt reviews landing gear status with the XCOR Lynx team at a recent Lynx structures meeting.

Once the gear is installed, we will perform tests of the retract and deploy mechanism.  We will cycle the landing gear multiple times to ensure it works properly.  The landing gear kinematics are quite complicated, and it’s imperative that the entire system works as it was designed.

So we will get a lot of hours on that, make sure everything works correctly and go from there.

After that, we have to go about installing the strakes onto the rest of the vehicle structure– attaching them onto the fuselage and tying them in with further carbon fiber layups.

The Lynx structure is primarily built from carbon fiber cloth infused with an epoxy resin.  This allows the structure to be very stiff, while still being light enough to fly to space.  Each structural component on the Lynx (except for the wings) will need to be bonded to each other.  Carbon fiber cloth is then physically laid-up over the joints between components to transfer the flight loads throughout the entire structure.

In some locations we will also be using mechanical fasteners (bolts) to reinforce these joints.

After the strakes are firmly attached, we are in the home stretch. We can begin doing things like plumbing the fuel tanks, wiring the electrical system,  doing the final checkouts of the landing gear system and  all of the other stuff that will ensure flight readiness.

BC: What was the hardest part of the strake build?

BL: The hardest part? Well, because you’re working with carbon fiber and epoxy, you have to build all four of these fuel tanks and the related attach points for the parts mentioned above, at the same time.

Then you close it all out and bake it in an oven. Hopefully the parts haven’t shifted and moved in the process. And hopefully, when you’re done, you have a part that works (we do!).

BC: Can you walk us through what the next steps are with the strakes as of today?

BL: The next steps are to attach the strakes to the fuselage center section, start plumbing the fuel and electrical lines and the reaction control thrusters and install the main landing gear.

I have to say that it’s a very exciting time for us.  After two and a half years of work on the strake design, staring at the part on a computer and doing the math, I actually get to see everything come together in front of me.  I couldn’t ask for more. All of our engineers are doing this at XCOR – designing, building and testing real hardware on real spacecraft. There is nothing better! I would encourage every engineer out there, who wants to really build things, to check out our job openings online.  The Lynx is a very exciting program to work on, and is only the first step on XCOR’s journey.  I look forward to seeing where it leads!





Follow the Build: Q&A with XCOR CEO Jeff Greason

Yesterday we interviewed XCOR Chief Executive Officer Jeff Greason (@JeffGreason on Twitter) about Lynx status, the future of suborbital and orbital space flights, and fielded questions from Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks to all of you who submitted questions–both for your thoughts and your patience. Enjoy!

Bryan Campen: If we were to step into the hangar right now, what would we see?

Jeff Greason: So what you would see are a few things. You’d see that the hydrogen stand we are doing engine work on with ULA is very prominent.

And the propulsion test bed that we are doing Lynx development on is out in the hangar as well.

Then, off behind a black curtain, we are accumulating the composite pieces of the Lynx airframe. We have:

• The fuselage we are going to fly,
• The LOX tank we are going to fly is currently being installed in the fuselage,
• We have the strakes—the thick part at the base of the wings–on both the port and starboard side,
• We have the landing gear,
• And we are eagerly awaiting the cockpit. It’s one of those things that is very close, but hard to tell how long it takes to get all the way to done.

BC: What major milestones are shaping-up this year for XCOR and Lynx? 

JG: When we get all the pieces for Lynx, of course that’s gonna be a big day.

There are a few pieces we need to start with the final assembly of the vehicle: the strakes, fuselage and cockpit.

Once we have those we’ll start integrating and doing all of the vehicle structural assembly. After all of that is done it starts to look like a spaceship. Then we start wiring and plumbing it. And there are other pieces that bolt on rather than glue on, like the engine cowling, that will arrive during the Lynx wiring and plumbing process.

Parallel to all this we continue to shake the kinks out of the propulsion system.

When the propulsion system is ready to go, we unbolt it from the test stand and bolt it on to the bird.

And when the bird is ready to go we start flight test activity.

BC: Jos Gal asks: When will be the roll-out of the Lynx and when is the first test-flight?

JG: I believe we will see the flight test program starting this year.

The roll-out will of course be when the vehicle is put together and the first flight test will be when it is ready to fly.

We’re in the phase of the project where we have to knock the remaining issues down one by one. Our engineers are going as fast as they can to get there, so there’s no need to apply pressure with a flight date.

BC: Per Wimmer asks: What are the most important milestones between now and launch of XCOR Lynx Mark I? How is everything progressing?

JG: To go back to the earlier answer—the next major milestone is when we have all of the structural subassemblies to start the vehicle assembly.

And it’s hard to pick out one major milestone after that. It’s the process of getting all the pieces put together.

There will be another, separate path when we are done debugging the propulsion system, at least sufficiently for the Mark I flights to start.  But those are not dependent on each other, because we have the testing on the test stand while we have the vehicle integration happening in parallel.

Those are the major milestones between here and flight.

As to how it’s progressing, I am optimistic and feeling good about the process once we have all the pieces in place. It’s a little hard to predict when we will have all the pieces.

BC: Follow-up question from Per Wimmer: How do you see the competitive landscape for private space rocket building and space travel developing at the moment?

JG: Right now, and for the next several years, the suborbital and orbital markets are going to remain fairly distinct from each other. They are not overlapping segments.

In the suborbital arena more than one company is going to enter service, and we’ll be one of them. I’m feeling very comfortable with our ability to compete on price because of our lower capital costs and higher flight rate, with the other entrants that I see coming into the suborbital market.

For the next few years, the orbital market is going to remain dominated by expendable launch vehicles, and I support efforts to reuse. But that will take some time to come online and reuse will likely work very incrementally in the near- to mid-term. I don’t think that there is going to be a day when suddenly it’s all reusable, with very low maintenance labor. I think it’s going to be a long, evolutionary process.

In the orbital world for the next few years, I think the story is going to be SpaceX, ULA and Orbital Sciences competing for market share. And of course ULA is a customer of ours trying to develop cheaper engines to help them compete, and we fully support them!

The generation after Lynx, on the one hand, will be starting immediately after Lynx Mark I; we will start the Lynx Mark II build.

But we also have, as we’ve said many times, a fully reusable orbital system on the drawing board. Just how fast we are going to start on that remains to be seen. But certainly it’s a multi year effort to get that to a point where it’s ready to start flight-testing.

I think eventually at much higher flight rate, reusable orbital systems will come into the market place. And when that happens they will dominate the lower end of the market.

That said, I think that expendable or quasi-reusable launch vehicles are going to remain. Because I think the market will optimize where the bulk of the mass gets lifted in smaller packages on vehicles that fly very frequently, but are small. And at the same time, the few pieces that are inconvenient to break into small payloads will be an oversized payload market, and that will continue to be served by expendables and semi-reusables.

BC: @ssshocker on Twitter asks: What is the timeline for Lynx MKIII? What price point are you aiming for with LEO payloads?

JG: I am not going to speculate on the timeline for Mark III. After the Mark I is flying I’ll put a new number on it.

Right now it’s looking like that will be about $500,000 for a microsatellite launch. The price is dominated by the cost of the expended upper stage for Mark III.

BC: Hernan Estrada asks: How do you expect XCOR technology (and its competitors’) to impact commercial point-to-point flying 10 years from now?

JG: I know there is an enormous level of interest in high speed point-to-point transport. And I believe that the day will come when these kinds of technologies do play in that market.

But I don’t expect it to be a material factor within ten years. The reason for that is that point-to-point transport, unlike suborbital and orbital flight, directly competes with a very mature industry of subsonic aircraft.

For the commodity you are offering—high speed—that’s a small fraction of the market who want that speed so badly that they will get themselves to a space port in a remotely populated area in order to take a high speed flight.

So in order for high speed flight to be practical, you have to be able to do it, and you have to be able to do it at a price point that is reasonably competitive with subsonic aircraft, or at least not a large multiple of it. On top of that, you would need to be able to fly from densely populated areas with all the implications that has for how you integrate with the air traffic control system, how much noise you generate on takeoff, that kind of thing.

It is possible to do. But I think it’s going to take many generations of a reusable rocket vehicle before we’re ready to do them. And that means I think suborbital point-to-point flight over any significant distance, as a major form of transportation, is going to come on only after we have fully reusable orbital flight.

Now people will find certain high value uses where an orbital system can be turned into a point-to-point delivery system for a few very high value payloads, where nobody cares how much it costs if it gets there in time. But I don’t that is going to be a major factor in the point-to-point transportation market over the next ten years.

Twenty? Maybe.

BC: @silicon_sky on Twitter asks: Is there a plan to try an intercontinental flight with the Lynx?

…and is there a one sentence answer you want to give with that?

JG: I have a more than one sentence answer with that one [laughter]. I get asked this question a lot.

The only way to get long distance out of a rocket is to go very, very fast. And if you want to go a significant fraction of the way around the planet, you have to go a significant fraction of the velocity it takes to go into orbit. Very significant point-to-point distances are just not acceptable to suborbital vehicles of the first generation because while you can go 60 or 70 miles high, you can’t go more than about 200 miles downrange. To extend that you could use subsonic glide, but that’s not any faster than any other airplane.

So it’s only interesting when you’re talking about orbital class systems that go Mach 8, Mach 10 or beyond.

BC:  @Goolic on Twitter asks: I’m really curious if you see any significant difference/advantage vs Virgin or simply see the market as big enough?

JG:  What’s important right now, and what we focus on, is getting multiple successful entrants operating in the suborbital market so that we can start to compete with each other. Once multiple companies are serving that market, they will all try different things and offer different kinds of services to the customers. And really not until then will we find out what the demands of the market really are.

So I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what the various competitive situations are going to be, or gaming them out.

What I focus on is “Let’s get out there and start serving the market, and then we’ll find out!” Maybe a market segments, and different companies offer different services that appeal to different people. Maybe the market’s big enough for many entrants. Or maybe there are winners and losers, and in that case we will work very hard to be one of the winners.

But until there are multiple companies in the competitive marketplace it’s too early to worry about.

BC: Question from Julian Powell: Any updates on the development of the upper stage hydrolox engine for ULA?

JG: The program is continuing, the work is ongoing, and when we reach significant milestones we ask permission to say something public about them. And ULA has been great about that.

BC:  @ZacTrolley asks: International partners & employees; how difficult is it [with] ITAR and other security measures? How can it be made easier?

JG: With ITAR in place it is essentially not possible for us to have non-US persons as employees. All of our employees are citizens or US permanent residents.

There is ITAR reform underway in the United States, and I think it’s possible in time those restrictions will come down, but they are not down yet and might not be down soon.

BC: @tschwarzzz on Twitter asks: What is your long-term vision for XCOR, as far as space settlement goes? Do you envision a future Lynx that enables it?

JG: So I outlined earlier that there is a plan for a fully reusable orbital system after Lynx. And I also discussed that, in my own view, the orbital transportation system is going to shake down into small, highly reusable vehicles that fly most of the mass, and larger semi-expendable vehicles that fly far less frequently that carry the occasional large payloads.

If you look at what it takes to do cost-effective transportation beyond low earth orbit, of course you need to start reusing what I’ll call the earth departure stages—the rockets that post the payloads to earth escape have to come back. That’s not that technically difficult to do.

They then need to be refueled on orbit, so that they can be re-used. To do that you have to have a propellant storage capability on orbit, and I think one large consumer of launch for a long time to come will be propellant launched from the earth to those orbiting facilities.

I think people are going to be an important part of the traffic model going to orbit. For example I think that Richard Gariott’s time on the space station shows that there is actually a market for on-orbit labor, there are things for people to do on-orbit that pay.

It’s just that right now those things don’t pay as much as it costs to get the people up there.

But with a fully reusable system, you’re talking about a price point where very clearly the opposite is true. Flying people up to orbit becomes like flying people to an offshore oil rig or a research station. People do it because it pays to do it.

The third major segment is going to be that most of the things that we build in space can be effectively built in space out of modest sized pieces, hundreds of kilograms. And a system that can take a couple of people and payloads of that class will be needed and successful.

Launches like those are going to be so much cheaper to fly per kilogram than the large vehicles that fly less frequently. The only things you’ll fly on the large vehicles will be things that you can’t break into smaller pieces. For example the earth departure stages themselves, when they have to be replaced, will probably go up on large vehicles.

Now I hope XCOR is part of that transportation system, and it’s my job to try to get us there.

I have thought about if we get to the point where we are flying fully reusable orbital systems what do we do next. And I have given some thought to whether it would make sense for us to start doing circumlunar transportation.

Obviously there are other companies out there that have vertical landing technology that are better equipped than we are to start doing things like reusable lunar landers.

And as I’ve said publicly that once you start flying to the moon, if you care at all what it costs, you start producing propellant on the moon so you can refuel your ships, rather than carrying all the propellant from the ground and that dramatically reduces that cost.

Also, I’d love to see the beginnings of a Mars transportation infrastructure put together. It’s a technically very interesting problem and very doable, but it does require some R&D to do that cost effectively. And I have tried to do what I can to interest government agencies like NASA in doing that R&D so that cost effective transportation to Mars can be obtained one day.

BC: A couple final questions: How is the Midland migration coming along?

JG: It’s always in a forward direction. We continue to work with Midland on navigating our way through the FAA spaceport licensing process. We are going back and forth with the building contractor on hangar renovations. Certainly taken a little longer than I’d like to get the renovation plan hammered out.

We have some rented office space in Midland right now, about six folks working out there.

And they’ll move over with the rest of us, to the hangar, when we are ready to [establish the Research and Development / Flight Test Center in Midland].

BC: Any more updates on the spaceport licensing process?

It’s hard to say much more about that. What’s going on is that as the FAA continues to ask questions we continue to generate answers. At some point we think they will run out of questions. So far we have not run out of answers.

BC: In the meantime, how is XCOR coping with the existing space in Mojave?

JG: [laughter] We are very, very, very full. It’s a challenge. I eagerly look forward to the larger space.

BC: How would you say XCOR is different from the XCOR of 10 years ago?

JG: Maybe it’s just me but it doesn’t feel all that different. I still get my hands on the hardware, everybody still knows everybody fairly well. We still feel like a small shop, we’re still all in one location—it’s just bigger.

I don’t get as much time with each person as I used to and I can’t spend as much time talking at conferences and things like that, because I have too much to do here.

One other thought: After Lynx is flying, a lot more of our people are going to be by percentage in the non-technical parts of the company—in business development, in support of the wet lease operators, and in sales and marketing because they are going to grow significantly. But even then it is my hope that those essentially become divisions of the company and the engineering R&D shop keeps this tight-knit feel.

Next up: XCOR Chief Operating Officer Andrew Nelson talks business. You can connect with Andrew on Twitter as @XCORAndrew.

The story continues: Follow the build


XCOR A&P Derek Nye prepares the inside of the Lynx Mk. I fuselage to receive the flight LOX tank.

Welcome back.

Over the coming year XCOR is developing its first spacecraft. And as one of our guys just said, this is the year of the Lynx. As discussed back in September we are taking you through that journey, post by post to first flight.

Next, we will kick off weekly coverage of all things XCOR—and Lynx—through a new Q&A with XCOR Chief Executive Officer Jeff Greason, touching on some of the big picture highlights of what to expect in the coming year, and recapping a bit of 2013.

We will then check in with XCOR Chief Operating Officer Andrew Nelson, and he’ll  provide both his view of the highlights and fill us in on any really cool developments on the business end. You can check out a recent interview with Andrew regarding space policy here.

After that we will connect you with our engineers and team to discuss Lynx status and the Lynx experience, and answer any questions you may have about XCOR.

Sit tight, everything is about to accelerate once more.


13-01-08_khaki-3412-2_resizeToday XCOR begins a full week at the American Geophysical Union’s 46th annual Fall Meeting in San Francisco. We’re talking with Khaki Rodway, Director of Payload Sales and Operations, about the future of research opportunities onboard Lynx as they relate to AGU participants.

Khaki handles all research and education missions onboard Lynx flights. She is the “Your Mission. Our Ship.” side of the XCOR equation.

The XCOR team, including Khaki, will be at booth 245 from Monday, December 9th through Friday, December 13th. Please drop by and say hello!

You can also connect with XCOR and Khaki directly on Twitter.

Bryan Campen: So what is XCOR doing at AGU?

Khaki Rodway: XCOR is at AGU to deliver a glimpse of the emerging opportunities onboard Lynx for anyone involved with atmospheric science, planetary observation or space physics (for instance). These opportunities are new and provided through Lynx, our commercial suborbital vehicle.

So what I am doing this week is talking to scientists about the paradigm shift Lynx provides the AGU community.

BC: For the uninitiated, can you elaborate on that shift, and how Lynx connects with AGU participants?

KR: When it comes to space-based research and observation, scientists now have the ability to get into the field as never before, and get to where they want to go with Lynx.

BC: And what are the main advantages of Lynx for atmospheric scientists, planetary scientists and space physicists?

KR: It’s threefold: First it’s the ability to fly at low cost, which makes high flight rates achievable. Second, the fact that researchers can fly with their experiments will be a game changer. And third, the greatest advantage, the one that makes Lynx so exciting and beneficial to scientists, is that each flight can be entirely dedicated to the scientist’s mission–they don’t have to share their g-profile or pointing profile with other experimenters.

Scientists will be able to gather in-situ measurements at multiple points in the atmosphere or direct a telescope at a specific planetary object, for instance.

BC: Can you give some specific examples of how advances in suborbital space flights will change research and experimentation for the better?

KR: Sure. Take space hardware, where automation is the norm.

Before hardware is ever on orbit you have to know that it’s going to work. Because if it doesn’t work you can’t just go up there and fix it.

But if you can do your calibration tests with a human in the loop and fly frequently at low cost in a relevant environment, you can save yourself time and heartache by knowing that the instrument will work the first time it’s put on a satellite.

If something goes wrong with your hardware, your experiment, you’d like to get your hands on that hardware and fix it… but you can’t. After launch, there is no way to tweak and modify anything. Perhaps months later you’ll retrieve it.

Lynx is designed for low cost, high frequency flights. By comparison–take sounding rockets as an example. Much of the research conducted at this level of the atmosphere currently involves sounding rockets, and those are about ten times the price of a Lynx flight, maybe a few flights per year per experiment.

And this ability for Lynx to fly at such low cost and high frequency makes high flight rates achievable, which is what makes the whole future of suborbital research so attractive. With increased frequency, you have the opportunity to test equipment in-situ and know much more about what to expect well before launch.

With Lynx, we can dial up flights on a couple of hours’ notice, which matters a lot for anyone wanting to perform research at a pace that’s interesting.

BC: OK so that’s low cost and high frequency flights, and in-situ measurements for instrumentation development. How would Lynx be relevant to, for instance, an atmospheric scientist?

KR: Let’s say I’m a researcher who wants to gather data on noctilucent or polar mesospheric clouds. These clouds form spontaneously and hang around for several hours. With Lynx rapid call-up time—Lynx can be ready to fly in 2 hours—it can get me to 80 kilometers before the clouds disappear. That has not been possible until now. If the weather changes and I only have two hours to fly to 80 kilometers, I now know I can do that.

BC: So a researcher can have increased frequency with Lynx, and at a sharp decrease in cost from today’s offerings. What else?

KR: One of the most interesting opportunities on the horizon with Lynx is that Lynx can be used as a dedicated space-based research vehicle that flies a single scientific mission. Much like oceanographers and marine geoscientists have their ocean-going research vessels that go to their areas of investigator interest, Lynx can do the same for space researchers. Space scientists can get into the field, collect samples at a particular altitude in a particular part of the world, or look at specific object in the solar system or area of the Earth when and how they want.

It is my flight, “my” vehicle with a scientific mission.

BC: Last question: What is the “Ignorosphere”.

KR: The Ignorosphere is a phrase scientists use for the Mesosphere/Lower Thermosphere (MLT) region, which is at about 50 to 140 km altitude, and is likely the least sampled and understood region of the Earth’s atmosphere.

It’s the region of the atmosphere where all of this research will happen.

Scientists call it the Ignorosphere because it is above the region accessible for sampling by aircraft and balloons, and below the region of satellite access. Sounding rockets do get into the MLT, but they quickly pass through it.

Lynx is going directly into the MLT, which means scientists can examine up close transition zones such as the mesopause and turbopause, or Earth’s highest clouds known as Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMC’s), or the regions where solar UV variability has its greatest impact. With Lynx floating in this region for several minutes, scientists now have the ability to do fine scale in-situ sampling of key chemical trace gases, meteoritic dust, isotopes of trace gas elements, water vapor, sulfates, CO2, just as an example. All this can be accomplished frequently, repeatedly, and at an extremely lower cost than existing platforms or capabilities.


From the Bunker: Red Team (Ray Fitting)

13-08-07_shop-people-041613-08-07_shop-people-0407Due to the amount of detailed work involved prior to each test day, the test team needs a simple visual method to track every single piece of hardware that has been tended to prior to a test. Here Ray Fitting of Red Team torques a line, painting a bright stripe on each nut and line that has already been checked and adjusted prior to the test. Red Team and the rest of the test team are then able to track what still requires attention, and what is in (or out) of place.

This is the eighth in a series of our posts “from the bunker,” interviews with the people behind the scenes at every hot fire and cold flow that takes place at XCOR.

Today we interview Ray Fitting from Red Team.

As always, if you have questions or comments, you can ask them right here, or connect with us on Twitter or Facebook.

Bryan Campen: What is Red Team?

Ray Fitting: Red Team is the team that pretty much does all the hands-on work on the test stand. Whenever we are bringing up pressures and going out for a test day, we are the guys actually around the test stand manipulating valves, regulators and doing any in-field repairs or modifications.

BC: When you joined XCOR, where did you start?

RF: Literally I started off as hangar maintenance and shop help, sweeping and cleaning up [the hangar]. Red Team started probably about three months into working for XCOR. XCOR kind of has a policy of having everyone at some point in time being part of Red Team. It helps to gain a better understanding of how the stands work.

BC: Your day starts pretty early on test days…

RF: When working with a test stand, generally [the Red Team crew] are the ones doing maintenance, repairs or upgrades on a stand. We are constantly working on it, so on a test day we’re some of the first into the hangar.

BC: And at the top of the day you’re there with Checklist and Control? What are you doing?

RF: Yes it’s usually Red Team, Checklist and Control. First part of the day is spent cleaning and prepping the stand to be filled with fuel or liquid oxygen or both.

Then we’re loading the trailers and getting ready to roll out.

BC: How do you integrate with Checklist and Control?

RF: Generally I communicate the most with Checklist, because [Brandon] is doing the challenge and response system. With that, there is a certain lingo and flow and it’s kind of hard to explain. Basically we have worked so long together that when we’re talking we can communicate more with less words. Everyone who is actively involved with a test stand is kind of on the same wavelength and shares this [ability]. And because there are usually not a lot of distractions at the bunker, it is easier to communicate problems and potential fixes.

BC: So you fuel-up and caravan to the bunker. When you arrive, what part of the job requires the greatest focus?

RF: When we bring pressures up and we are getting closer to run, that requires the most focus.  We’re listening, going through actuation tests on valves, checking all of the systems, and always listening to and looking at everything to make sure it’s behaving and working the way it’s supposed to. During the final parts of the setup before we arm it and go back into the bunker to press the “Go” button, that’s the most mentally demanding moment for everyone.


Ray opens-up helium bottles and brings-up pressure on the test stand during a test day. 

BC: How long did it take until you felt settled-into the role?

RF: It’s one of those things where you never finish learning. There is always something new going on and I am always learning. There are always new tests, new valves, new apparatus. So you eventually get to a point where you have enough knowledge of safety and how things work that you kind of get comfortable— but it’s still a constant learning process.

However, once you get to a place where the hardware is neutral, that’s a little simpler to learn and understand. But it takes a bit of hands-on to get a feel for which system is which plumbing-wise. Then you’re able to take it apart and understand it in your head.

BC: What’s the most interesting part of the experience?

RF: Watching fire come out of the engine. That means all the work the crew has done has come together, and it did what it was supposed to do.


From the Bunker: Video (Part 2 of 2 with Mike Massee)



This is the seventh in a series of posts “from the bunker,” interviews with the people behind the scenes at every hot fire and cold flow that takes place at XCOR.

Today we conclude an interview with XCOR’s Mike Massee, the guy behind the videos captured at every hot fire.

If you have questions or comments, you can ask them right here, or connect with us on Twitter or Facebook.

Bryan Campen: Jeff [Greason] often talks about being able to read shock diamonds with the naked eye – the brain is faster than any computer in being able to read a rocket engine during a hot fire – so being in a bunker, it’s very important to have video. What set of selections do you have in terms of equipment or set-up to make it better, to make it an even faster read?

Mike Massee: Early on when we started, when I started in 2001 the entire world of broadcast video was still in standard definition. And my big goal was to move into high definition as soon as it became affordable at a reasonable rate to do so, because there’s so much more situational awareness with that clarity. So the first chance I had, I started switching out things with HD.

That made a huge difference, having big monitors with lots of pixels. Instead of a little fuzzy dot that was a valve, you could see the valve, you could see which way it was actuated, and resolution is, probably the most important thing is having more resolution. As the world starts to get into 4K, which is quad HD basically, almost four thousand pixels across on a video screen, that will bring an even more window-like clarity to the world. I like to call the video wall we have in the bunker the world’s most expensive window. We are looking right through the wall at what’s on the other side of it – except that you can zoom and look into different spots.

I’m reminded of the video screen in Back To The Future II that they have in their future home. They have this screen that they pull down in front of the window that gives them a view of whatever they want to look at. That’s how I’ve always kind of seen it, it is just a big window.

BC: Have you ever destroyed any equipment? Be honest.

MM: I’ve put a lot of equipment in the line of fire. Certainly very, very close to operating rocket engines. But since there has never been a hard start in the history of the company, I have not lost any cameras. The worst camera that got damaged – and it still worked after that – was in a really hellacious sand storm. So the worst damage came from Mojave weather and not from the rocket engines or the propulsion systems, interestingly enough. So that’s–I’ve really been very fortunate that I’ve put some very expensive equipment on the line and we’ve not had to replace any of it. Our engines, since they’re safer and reliable, I feel comfortable putting equipment out there, and I haven’t really had any problems with that. The main thing is they have to, if they’re close to the engine, they have to survive a very harsh vibratory environment because there’s a lot of vibration radiation that comes off of them. So there are some special considerations there. But, other than that, I’ve had very good luck here. That’s just a testament to the company’s propulsion technology as a whole.

From the Bunker: Video (Part 1 of 2 with Mike Massee)

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 12.22.55 PMThis is the sixth in a series of posts “from the bunker,” interviews with the people behind the scenes at every hot fire and cold flow that takes place at XCOR.

Today we kick-off an interview with XCOR’s Mike Massee, the guy behind the videos captured at every hot fire.

If you have questions or comments, you can ask them right here, or connect with us on Twitter or Facebook.

Bryan Campen: So what do you do at XCOR and specifically on test days? 

Mike Massee: I run media imaging and graphics at XCOR. That includes test documentation, video and the onboard video systems for the Lynx.

On the day of a hot fire, I set up and record multiple channels of video at the test site.  This system both gathers visual documentation for the test as well as provides situational awareness in real time for the crew. I also take still photographs and remote controlled still photographic imagery of rocket engine tests.

BC: You’ve been doing this a while, right? Your particular focus in terms of documentation with film here is on rocket firings and everything surrounding it, probably more than almost anybody in this space. 


Methane Blast – This photo of XCOR’s 5M15 LOX-Methane engine is one of the most popular that Mike has taken. It has been featured in countless magazines and websites and several books. This engine was developed as a lunar ascent module prototype together with ATK and NASA. This photo has been nicknamed “The Death Ray” shot by XCOR personnel.

MM: In terms of sheer quantity we tend to do a lot of tests here because of the reusability of our engines and the frequency at which we test.  Because there are non-toxic propellants, the set up and handling requirements are such are that we have a very rapid turnaround cycle, so I’ve photographed a lot of different engine types over the years and a lot of different tests on each one of those engine types.

I’ve come to specialize in rocket photography and in shock diamond photography, things like that. Some of it is technical photography and some artistic, beautiful stuff.

BC: What was the learning curve like? 

MM: The curve is learning about the dynamic range or brightness of the rocket engine plumes, and how to set the camera to take advantage of that artistically and forensically.  The different rocket engine fuels all produce plumes of varying brightness and color. For example, kerosene is much, much, much, much brighter than anything else we test with. And so, you can play around with that a lot by intentionally underexposing the photo to highlight the plume or in the case of, say, methane and alcohol and hydrogen rocket engine plumes, they’re more visibly dimmer.

BC: So when is the best time to shoot, or how do you work around your circumstances?

MM: It’s much more difficult to get a clear photograph of the plumes in broad daylight. So you have to be kind of creative, shoot at different times of day or highlight the engines and compose them and frame them in different ways so that the plume actually shows up in the photo. There are also issues with high frequency vibrations which affects what shutter speed you use.


The 3E17 RCS engine prototype used N2O and Ethane, storable, non-cryogenic propellants.

BC: I have two questions then. One, how do you set up usually? And what’s the crew looking for in a shot? 

MM: For any given test day there’s typically a default set-up which includes an overview of the stand, and the stand is framed closely and the entire stand in one view, and then there’s a wide overview of the area for situational awareness. Kind of like a security camera. And beyond that, there’s a number of specialty cameras where they can say hey, I need a shot of the pumps on the other side of the stand because we can’t see them in the other shots, or I want a close up of the engine plume, or I want a picture of this particular valve – and then we move a camera out there and there’s power and transmission of that back to the bunker.

So there is a basic setup for most engine tests that’s the same, and then there are any number of specialty cameras that people would like to place in different areas, depending on what we’re looking at. If cameras are available and I want to do it, I place them for artistic shots to use for promotional purposes.


An early run of the Lynx “5K18″ main engine on XCOR’s original “5K” stand (designed to handle engines up to 5,000 lbs of thrust) this photo is taken in bright noon daylight, but underexposed to highlight the luminosity of the plume.

BC: What cameras do you use to shoot, what’s the setup?

MM: A lot of the regular cameras are off the shelf inexpensive HD cameras, but there are a lot of converter boxes and switchers and quad splitters and things that allow us to monitor and record the cameras remotely in real time and routers to put any image on any screen. It’s a little television studio in a box, and that’s something I’ve built up over time. I have a background as a broadcast engineer.

Some of the specialty cameras we have are infrared and high speed. We use infrared cameras to detect hot spots, leaks, and things like that. And high speed cameras for special tests that have some type of phenomena that’s so high frequency that it cannot be caught in a regular frame rate. So, where regular video is 30 or 60 frames per second, the high speed camera can go up to about 10,000 frames per second or more if you sacrifice resolution for frame rate.

Next week: Find out if Mike has ever destroyed equipment during a hot fire.



From the Bunker: Control (Part 2 of 2 with Geoff Licciardello)


Geoff Licciardello (Control, right) with engineer Lee Draper (DAQ, left) and engineer Jeremy Voigt (Checklist, center) during a recent cold flow test at the XCOR hangar.

This is the fifth in a series of posts “from the bunker,” interviews with the people behind the scenes at every hot fire and cold flow that takes place at XCOR.

Today we complete an interview which began last week with XCOR’s Geoff Licciardello (in the role of Control). Geo previously worked as Control on both the Lynx truss (5K18) and LOX pump tests, and currently works on all hydrogen program testing at XCOR.

We start with a brief answer to a question of how time changes for the crew when an engine is fired.

Bryan Campen: Do you have this experience with time that Jeremy mentioned as well, that it slows down during a hot fire?

Geoff Licciardello: Yes. I call it the hot fire time warpI might be set up to do a two second engine run, and I flip that switch and the engine starts running, and it feels like a long time for those two seconds.

But then I watch the video afterwards and go “oh, that was really fast!” It felt like ten seconds in front of the box, but everything seems to slow down a little bit when you’re actually there in person firing the engine. And I don’t know how to explain it, but everything seems to move in slow motion almost.

BC: When you began at XCOR, what was your first role on the test crew? 

GL: My first job on the test crew was as an intern, where I ran DAQ for a couple tests. When I came back full time they threw me over to running the checklist. Checklist was where I spent most of my time my first couple of years at XCOR, at first with the 5K18 stand, and then the LOX pump test stand.

As the hydrogen program came online I transitioned to being Control for all hydrogen work, because I was experienced running pumps on the other stand. That transitioned to being Control for hot fires.

That’s my progression so far. We try to do cross-training as well so different people are trained in different roles. Then if for some reason I can’t come in one day, someone else could take over for me. And you need that understanding before you start flipping valves, or become a test czar for a test.

BC: So that’s your progression. I’m curious how Control integrates with what roles during a test day, starting with Test Czar…

GL: During the actual test day there’s not much interaction between Test Czar and Control. Usually it’s between Checklist and Control. On the day, Czar usually has the job of watching and waiting with his hand over the shoulder of Control. If there is an issue, he’ll clap you really hard on the shoulder to shut things down so that you can deal with things if there’s an anomaly.

But it’s Checklist and Control that have the tight interactions.

Every test we run through the checklist. It’s really important that we do things in the right order, that we set everything at the right pressures and go through it all in a very orderly fashion.

When a command is called out, I repeat back that command to let Checklist know I’ve done it. There are a lot of steps on the list that need to happen in the right sequence.

Having everyone understand where they are at and where they want to be keeps things very smooth for test day.


Chief Engineer Dan DeLong (Test Czar, left) in the XCOR bunker with engineer Mark Street (Control, right).

BC: One other question, about the Test Czar with the hand on the shoulder of Control. Can you explain that for readers?

GL: Sure. The tradition we’ve had at XCOR is, during an engine run, it’s a tense moment where things could happen quickly. Everyone is looking at the monitors and switches. Control has a lot do and is very focused on doing the job, but the Test Czar doesn’t have to worry about flipping switches. He is watching the engine and the stand, and if things need to stop quickly he is the best person to see that and to know that we should stop.

BC: Why not just shout?

GL: Engines are loud. It’s better than a verbal command you can’t see or feel.

BC: Anything else that I haven’t asked that you’d like to cover?

GL: Control Box is exciting. You feel a really strong connection with the hardware. And you are tangibly connected to everything that happens.

For anyone who wants to experience, the cool part is that you are the one right there with all the buttons, running the engine, flipping the switches. You are very involved with the test. It’s a lot of responsibility but at the same time, when you get a successful test off there is a high level of satisfaction.

If you’ve made it this far… congrats, and stay tuned for some pretty big news tomorrow! 

From the Bunker: Control (Part 1 of 2 with Geoff Licciardello)


Geoff Licciardello hauls the control box out to the XCOR bunker.

Today we are breaking things up, and providing you the first part of a two-part interview…

This is the fourth in a series of posts “from the bunker,” interviews with the people behind the scenes at every hot fire and cold flow that takes place at XCOR. Today we continue our discussion about the role of Control, this time with engineer Geoff Licciardello. Geo  previously worked as Control on both the Lynx truss (5K18) and LOX pump tests, and currently works on all hydrogen program testing at XCOR.

Bryan Campen: We didn’t actually ask this in our first Control interview with Jeremy this week—what’s a control box?

Geoff Licciardello: A control box is the box that will remotely control the valves and every system on the test stand.

BC: When do you start your work as Control, a day ahead of tests?

GL: It depends on what we’ve been doing. If this is the first time we bring a stand online, usually we’ll have at least one day, sometimes more days, of shakedown testing before we run out to the bunker to do a real test. We’ll run through all the systems, do some simulated tests, maybe some cold flows to address any initial issues from new hardware before a new test.

But if it’s a mature system, sometimes it’s just “get everything ready to go,” then go out to the bunker for a test.

BC: What’s a shakedown?

GL: A shakedown is basically putting a stand through its paces and finding any issues with the stand. Basically you’re just putting the stand through all of its paces so that you can find any issues that come up and address them before it’s actually time to run the engine. It can be disruptive to a test if you have a simple error that could have been spotted earlier, one of those things that you can’t always fix in the field. Being able to find those problems ahead of time and then resolve them really saves a test day a lot of trouble.

BC: What’s the difference between a shakedown and a click test?

GL: So a click test is when we have the control box hooked-up to the stand and electrical power is up, but nothing else is enabled. We don’t have fluid in the tanks, we don’t have  pressure on the stand. We are essentially just checking each valve making sure that all our wiring is correct and that the correct valve on the stand will click long before we test.

So it’s a way of detecting electrical or wiring issues.

A shakedown is much more thorough—in a shakedown we run through things as close to doing a real test as possible, so that we can find every issue that may crop up in the field.

BC: How does Control integrate with the rest of the team?

GL: It’s really important for Control, Checklist and Red Team to have very good communication. During a test day, those are the three roles that are doing a lot of the work.

Checklist is making sure we go through the steps in the proper order.

Then Control and Red Team are the ones who are actually turning valves, running systems.

If there isn’t good communication, that leads to problems. So it is really important that everyone is on the same page.

Control is a lot of responsibility. I am the one right there with all the switches when it’s go-time. If something happens I have to be ready to react and I have to know the system very well because I am the one actually commanding things.  Control needs a good understanding of the system so that they know what actions will cause an issue or not.

More from Geo soon…

If you have questions or comments, you can ask them right here, or connect with us on Twitter or Facebook.

From the Bunker: Control (Jeremy Voigt)

This is the third in a series of posts “from the bunker,” interviews with the people behind the scenes at every hot fire and cold flow that takes place at XCOR. Today we talk about the role of Control with XCOR engineer Jeremy Voigt (and soon with engineer Geoff Licciardello, who also works in this role at XCOR for another program).


Jeremy Voigt (Control, center). To his left is Brandon Litt (Checklist), and to his right is Jeff Greason (Test Czar).

Bryan Campen: So you started off as an intern? How did you end up in the role of Control?

Jeremy Voigt: For hot fires, interns never get to do things like Control.  When I was an intern I started off as Spotter.

Then I graduated to video. Now all of a sudden instead of being outside, I’m inside sitting next to the head table. I can hear everything going on, all of the radio calls. At the same time I started reading checklists for another test stand, and was Red Team for that stand as well.

When I came back as a full time engineer I was given the responsibility of the Truss Test Stand. I started out on Checklist and worked my way up to Control Box.

So now I run Control Box and plan the tests for the Truss Test Stand.

BC: What does that mean?

JV: I’m in charge of the test stand. That means that when there are modifications that need to be done, I will either do them myself or delegate them to people to do, and then check over their work.

Then when it comes time to test, I talk with senior engineers–Doug [Jones], Jeff [Greason] and Dan [DeLong]–and we figure out the objectives of the test and what we need to do to meet them. 

Then I will go to the crew and make sure everybody knows what’s going on and make sure they are ready for the test. I’ll send out emails on when we’re going to have the test, when we will have after action meetings and data reviews—all those things.

So I’m kind of the point of contact for the rest of the test crew.


On Control Box, I start days before the actual test. I will do this whenever we’ve broken into the stand. I’ll do a click test where I actuate every single valve. And I don’t do that on the day of the test, I do it beforehand, so that we know when we go out there that we won’t have any problems.


BC: What’s a click test?

JV: A click test is where I go through and actuate all of the valves and make sure the electronics wiring from the control box to the stand to each of the valves works.  That they all move when they are supposed to and that they don’t move when they are not supposed to.


BC: Ok, here’s something I’ve heard you mention offhand that I want to ask you about specifically. Is it true during a hot fire that time actually slows down for you?

JV: Yeah. I’m counting in in my head, I have my hand on the stop button and I’m watching the video screens…


…and I think to myself “Oooh, that must have been about a minute! I wonder how the count’s going?”

And then you hear Checklist next to you scream out “Fifteen seconds!”…

Screen Shot 2013-11-12 at 10.45.36 AM

On the left, Brandon Litt (Checklist) shouts the count with Jeremy (Control) to his right.

…and you can barely hear him and he’s shouting at the top of his lungs.

And then I say to myself “Oh man, I’ve got a long way to go.”

Every second feels like an hour of just watching, of making sure everything is going right. It’s an unbelievable feeling.

At larger companies, someone my age wouldn’t ever get near that experience. The thing I like about XCOR is I get that opportunity. It’s a lot of fun, getting to fire the rocket engine.

To work on this and then get to be able to test it, that’s unique to XCOR, and I never take it for granted.