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Branson And Northrop May Be Backing "Wrong" Rocket Man!

NASA Lynx

It seems that if you want to create a space tourism business, your name has to start with a "B": Branson (Virgin Galactic), Bezos (Blue Origin), or Bigelow (Bigelow Aerospace). I guess they start with "b" because they're all billionaires.

Perhaps, though, "X" should mark the spot. Today, XCOR Aerospace, a company which has helped make rocket engines for NASA, is unveiling the final design for the "Lynx." The Lynx is a two-seat, 40-foot rocket plane which will take tourists to the edge of the Earth's atmosphere. XCOR hopes to get it flying in two years, allowing paying customers on board after 50 test flights (its test pilot is former Space Shuttle Commander Rick Searfoss).

XCOR doesn't have the backing of any billionaire. CEO Jeff Greason, a former Intel technical manager, has plodded along for years by raising a few million here, a few there, mostly from individual investors, like dot-commers and doctors. Now the Air Force is talking about putting up some money so it can use XCOR's expertise in getting into space more quickly.

But Greason suffers from anonymity. There are no big names attached to his company, and he toils away in a hangar at the Mojave Spaceport down the tarmac from a legend: Burt Rutan. Rutan's Scaled Composites built SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded suborbital spacecraft. Northrop Grumman now owns 100 percent of the company, and Rutan is busy building SpaceShipTwo in Mojave for Richard Branson, who hopes to have Virgin Galactic flying in a year.

Most believe Rutan and Branson will be the first to get tourists in space, despite a fatal accident during a rocket test last year. XCOR's Greason says being first has never been his priority. Providing the safest and most economically viable rocket plane is. "We're more like the tortoise and the hare." Still, he says, "I had expected various competitors to be farther along now than they are, so the chance of us being first is still there."

Greason is not one of these guys who promises you the moon, literally. He says private space travel has had a history of promising too much and delivering too little. He hopes that's changing. "This is an industry that will only do good by doing well," he says. "In order for us to get out and achieve all the good things that we want to achieve, investors have to feel like 'That's great, that's wonderful, it's great to be investing in something that does so much good, now am I gonna get my money back?" He says that sort of return on investment hasn't come yet, "but I hope it will come soon."

I've seen a mock-up of the cockpit XCOR is working on in Mojave, and it is tiny. I can only imagine the thrill (terror) of being propelled 200,000 feet up in three minutes on engines powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen. At least you get to sit up front next to the pilot, instead of behind him or her.

But my favorite part is the pressure suit tourists will have to wear. The cockpit will be pressurized, but this suit and helmet will keep you alive in case pressure is lost. Get this, the spacesuit is made by a company called Orbital Outfitters, www.orbitaloutfitters.com, which ALSO MAKES HOLLYWOOD MOVIE COSTUMES! The suit they're making for XCOR is called the "IS-3," but it's nicknamed the "Get Me Down Alive" suit. YES!

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  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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