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.