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FLEDGLING COMPANY HAS A REACH STRETCHING INTO SPACE ROCKETS SCIENTISTS START OUT SMALL WITH REPLICA OF FAMOUS ENGINE.

Byline: Jim Skeen Staff Writer

MOJAVE - A small company with big goals of reaching into space is looking for customers with deep pockets who want to relive history.

XCOR, a Mojave company with five full-time employees, is working on a rocket engine that, in the short term, will power a flying replica of the X-1 rocket plane that Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier in 1947. The XCOR engine could later power an aircraft to the edges of space.

``Our business plan is to make money doing little things, then make money doing bigger things, and then make money going into orbit,'' said Dan DeLong, the company's chief engineer.

While it's too early in the development for a hard cost estimate, XCOR's best guess is that it will cost any prospective owner about $5 million to own the X-1 replica they are calling the NeX-1, which could tap into the growing - and increasingly pricey - market for high-performance World War II aircraft.

``It's for wealthy aviation enthusiasts who would want it flown at air shows and demonstrations,'' said company president Jeff Greason, a Caltech graduate and a former employee of computer chip maker Intel.

Two of the rocket engines they are developing could eventually power a more advanced airframe to the edges of space. XCOR believes such an aircraft could reach 100 kilometers, 62 miles above Earth.

``At 100 kilometers the stars come out, the sky gets black and you get your astronaut wings,'' DeLong said.

XCOR is mum on the commercial applications they envision for such capability. They do see, however, a potential space tourism market where an aircraft could take a couple of passengers on a ride of about Mach 4, about 2,800 mph.

XCOR is composed of former employees of the propulsion division of Rotary Rocket, a Mojave company that is attempting to build a reusable spacecraft. When Rotary Rocket dropped plans to develop its own engine, the employees were laid off.

Disappointed with the lack of progress big aerospace companies are making in opening up space and unwilling to break up their team, the workers formed XCOR, which incorporated in September.

The company's workers make no secret of their desire to someday fly into space themselves.

``Opening the space frontier offers a hopeful future,'' said Aleta Jackson, a technical writer for the company. ``Scratch any space enthusiast and you'll find a person keen on preserving the environment, concerned about resource depletion, and who wants more adventure.''

DeLong, a Cornell University graduate who spent 10 years working for NASA contractors, said the company is focusing on developing modestly performing rocket engines that are easy to operate and very reliable.

The immediate project of the company is a small version of the engine it will use in the NeX-1 rocket plane. In a hangar at the Mojave Airport, the company is working on a 15-pound thrust engine.

While an investment banker solicits financial backers for the company, the employees are using their savings and credit cards to fund the $10,000 to $20,000 development of the subscale engine.

In addition to testing their designs for the larger engine, the company plans to market the small engine. Potential users include museums and traveling technology shows.

For the NeX-1, the aircraft will have one engine. The NeX-1 will be able to take off from the ground and will not need to be air-dropped, like the real X-1 was from an Air Force bomber for all but one of its flights.

XCOR's NeX-1 will operate at just under the speed of sound. The engine itself would be capable of about Mach 1.5, roughly 1,000 mph, but there would be aerodynamic stability issues.

It is possible for such a rocket plane to receive certification under the home-built, experimental aircraft category, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA would insist, however, that it stay away from populated areas.

``From a regulatory standpoint, it is feasible,'' said FAA spokesman Mitch Barker.

The company had originally considered building a replica of a World War II German rocket plane, the Me 163, but decided there would be too many technical headaches.

The original X-1 aircraft was part of a joint effort by the agency that would later become NASA, the Army Air Corps and Bell Aircraft Corp. The project was intended to look at how aircraft handled up to and through the sound barrier, approximately 700 mph.

For all but one of its launches, the X-1 was taken aloft by a modified B-29 bomber and dropped. A four-chamber, 6,000-pound thrust rocket engine gave it 150 seconds of powered flight.

On Oct. 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager, suffering from two broken ribs from a horseback riding accident the night before, flew the X-1 past the sound barrier.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo: (1 -- color) XCOR employees include, from left, Doug Jones, Buzz Lang, Dan DeLong, Aleta Jackson and Jeff Greason.

(2) XCOR is currently developing this subscale rocket engine.

Jim Skeen/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 27, 2000
Words:832
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