SpaceX founder Elon Musk may be the most celebrated entrepreneur of private space travel, but he's not the only business owner determined to leapfrog NASA when it comes to bringing humans to outer space.
A handful of tech moguls have gravitated toward private space exploration in recent years, such as Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. As the Houston Chronicle reports, Bezos has spent around $500 million on a venture called Blue Origin that is working on reusable rockets, while Allen's Stratolaunch Systems is developing a launch system with the goal of providing orbital access to space at much lower costs. Allen also invested in SpaceShipOne, which completed the first-ever private flight to space in 2004.
Nowhere near as famous as either, however, is rocket scientist Jeff Greason, founder of Mojave, California-based XCOR Aerospace. Greason founded XCOR--which claimed the 446 spot on 2007's Inc. 5000 list--in 1999, and has been building rocket ships ever since.
The company develops reusable rocket-powered vehicles and systems and is soon to begin test flights for the Lynx, a piloted, reusable liquid rocket-powered spacecraft that takes off and lands horizontally like an airplane. The Lynx is designed to reach space five minutes after taking off, provide customers with a short period of weightlessness, and then return back to earth.
Amazingly, the 30-foot Lynx is designed to require almost no maintenance between flights, and will fly up to four times per day. Its first flight is expected to take place in the next year or two and will be piloted by three-time NASA astronaut Rick Searfoss.
Last week, XCOR received a Spaceport license from the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate spaceflight at the Midland International Airport in Midland, Texas.
“It’s an important day for not only Midland, but the nation, as we see the private space sector becoming a vital part of our future economy,” Midland Development Corporation chairman Robert Rendall said in a statement.
Though based in Mojave, XCOR is creating a research and development center in Midland and will establish an operations and manufacturing site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In addition to building the Lynx, the company's 70 employees also work with aerospace contractors and government customers on propulsion systems.
New space exploration companies have ambitious goals that sound like science fiction, such as opening space to all of humanity and colonizing the moon and Mars, but doing so will require reducing the costs of spaceflight dramatically. Reusable spacecraft are a key piece of that puzzle.
“If you really want to make it so that anybody can go into space, you have to increase the safety and decrease the cost,” Bezos told Wired in 2011.
Though a number of companies are racing to further develop the market for private space travel, SpaceX is the clear leader. The company was the first to launch a privately developed spacecraft into space and return back safely in 2010, and in 2012 became the first to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.
Last week, NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract to bring its astronauts to the Space Station, but also gave $2.6 billion to SpaceX.
For Greason, however, taking XCOR into space is not just about setting milestones or even growing his business.
"I believe humanity opening up a frontier in space is important," he told the Chronicle. "I think if we want to have a future, we have to do it."