In November 2001, I used my newly issued multi-engine land ticket to fly to Mojave, California (the home of Burt Rutan's operation) to go to the unveiling of the Xcor Rocket-Ez. Xcor Aerospace are in the business of building rocket engines. However, unlike previous rocket engine designs, Xcor is designing rocket engines that are really re-usable - you can just put the gas in and go. As the Xcor President, Jeff Greason, said - what's missing from current rocket technology isn't performance - it's the ability to fly rockets like a jet engine. They are trying to design a rocket engine that can be used commercially.

  The Rocket-Ez isn't a performance demonstrator - it's an operations demonstrator. It's basically a test-bed for their 400lb thrust rocket engines, so they can find out what it takes to run a rocket engine routinely. Xcor's eventual aim is for commercial space transportation - not just satellites, but to also commercially develop rocket technology that can get a human in space. A lofty goal indeed - and an exciting one! Government space agencies such as NASA have been sadly stagnating in recent years, and it's exciting that someone in the private sector has the drive and attitude to accept the risks and challenges of this kind of thing. Maybe there is hope for the human race after all :-) Xcor are not aiming at the X-Prize - they don't even mention it anywhere, and the X-Prize website doesn't mention Xcor - but I wouldn't be surprised if they are the first group to meet the X-Prize criteria.

  I flew the Geronimo from Houston Gulf to Mojave with Jeff Richich and Mike King (Mike's my multi-engine instructor, and Jeff got his multi rating about 3 hours before I did). Apart from being the furthest west I had ever been in my life, my first contact with SoCal Approach, and probably the most flying I've done in one day (10 hours each way!) it cleaned my bank account out quite thoroughly :-) (No one said flying was cheap, let alone multi-engine flying). The trip was a lot of fun, and worth every penny. Below is photographs and video from the Xcor unveiling with some explanations.

The Video

You're going to need broadband for these - the videos are huge. The Flight shows the takeoff, the glide (and some nice formation flying) and the landing. The Whole Presentation shows Jeff Greason's talk, plus additional flight and ground footage of the aircraft. Apologies in advance for camera shake - it was very windy and I didn't have a tripod. Makes it tricky when you zoom in!

The Flight - 16MB download - 58 seconds of MPEG-2 (encoded at 2Mbit/s data rate)
The Whole Presentation - 40MB download - 8 minutes of MPEG-2 (encoded at 500Kbit/s data rate)

MPEG-2 is viewable with recent versions of Media Player (on Windows) or VLC (on Unix). I've not used a Mac in a while, so I don't know what MPEG-2 software exists for it, but as it's a standard format, I'm sure there's more than one MPEG-2 player for Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X.

The Photographs

Click on the thumbnails for a standalone fullsize image.

Positioning for flight - the aircraft was towed behind a pickup truck to the threshold. The technology isn't quite evolved enough so you can taxi on a rocket engine!
After landing - the aircraft rolled most of the way, then was pushed (the rocket engines were cut in-flight and the aircraft glided in for a landing which is apparent on the video)
The chase plane - a normal piston-powered Long-Ez. The Rocket-Ez has a much better power-off glide ratio than a regular Long-Ez as it lacks the drag of a windmilling propellor. The Long-Ez had to keep some power on to fly formation with the gliding Rocket-Ez.
The gathered crowd examines the Rocket-Ez just after it was pulled up to our area on the ramp.
Xcor's test pilot, Dick Rutan, is interviewed by the local ABC affiliate. Dick Rutan is a noted test pilot, whose other claims to fame include flying the Burt Rutan designed "Voyager" unrefuelled around the world with Jeanni Yaeger.
The fuel tank contains isopropyl alcohol. The oxidizer is liquid oxygen. One of the goals of Xcor is to use nontoxic propellants. As well as being nontoxic, isopropyl alcohol is inexpensive.
The ignition system - an off-the-shelf electronic ignition. The spark plugs used are from a weedwhacker! The biggest problem with the spark plugs is that the ceramic insulator has a tendency to crack. Weedwhacker sparkplugs have a lesser tendency to crack than expensive aviation spark plugs in the Xcor engine!
A close-up of the business end with the cowling and heatshields installed. The metal parts are the rocket engines. They are surprisingly compact.
The two rocket engines with the cowling removed, but the heat shields still present.
Left view of the top engine with the heat shield removed. Note the spark plug wire at the front of the engine. Also note that the fuel line enters at the rear of the engine. The engine is regeneratively cooled, meaning the fuel flows around the engine from the rear towards the combustion chamber, cooling the engine.
The right hand side of the engine. The ignition system is also visible ahead of the engine.
Looking at the engines and control systems from below. The tanks in the fuselage contain helium. The helium is used to propel the isopropyl alcohol from the fuel tank. A simple solution to the fuel pump problem - use a compressed inert gas.
The instrument panel. Pretty much standard Long-Ez apart from the LOX, helium and isopropyl alcohol quantity gauges! It even has the same ancient Terra NAV/COM that our club's Cessna 170 has...
Close-up of the engine controls. Yes, it does say "Fwd - Loud, Back - Quiet"...
The top side of the engine, clearly showing the spark plug and fuel line.
On the way home - we were vectored right over Edwards Air Force Base (that's not long after Mojave tower thought we were an MD-11 and were rightly confused when we told them we were going to KGCN!) On the right of the picture, half hidden by a cloud is probably the largest compass rose in the world.
We got to do a flyby of the Grand Canyon too (we spent the night at the Grand Canyon). One of the wonders of the world. Photographs don't do the place any justice...

The company's website is http://www.xcor.com and contains more information, photographs and video of what Xcor is doing, including their recent demonstration on CNN (some good general aviation news for a change...)

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