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Space Flight, Done Right: A Chat with SXC CEO Michiel Mol

January 30, 2013 at 11:16 AM | by | ()

Space. The final frontier. Or, more likely, the next logical frontier for travel.

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Michiel Mol, Founder and CEO of Space Expedition Corporation (SXC), a Netherlands-based company pioneering affordable and sustainable commercial space flight.

Mol has dreamt of traveling to space for as long as he can remember and is a self-described nerd. It was at the age of 11 that he caught his first glimpse of space, through a telescope he built himself. In 1993 Mol and friends established Lost Boys, now known as LBI, to develop software. Getting in on that industry's frontier has thus paved his way towards this ultimate goal of breaching yet another.

SXCs first operational spacecraft, the Lynx (built by XCOR Aerospace), is due to perform its test flight from SXC’s Mojave spaceport as soon as April this year, marking SXC's first solid step towards the goal of rocketing willing, paying travelers nearly 65 miles up and into the blackness above Earth. A year of testing will then ensue, with the first commercial flights scheduled for the latter half of 2014. SXC-built spaceports at both Mojave, CA and Curaçao are also due to open in 2017.

Among those who've already signed up are "SXC Ambassadors," like supermodel Doutzen Kroes and DJ Armin van Buuren. Even if you won't be sharing the spaceship with them, a spaceflight with SXC is set to be quite an exhilarating experience, to say the least.

Let's break down the stages of an SXC trip up in the Lynx:

· During horizontal takeoff from a spaceport the pilot and passenger—it's only a two-person craft—will experience the acceleration toll akin to that of a jet fighter or a Formula 1 racecar. Once airborne the Lynx will then pull up into a vertical climb and set its course skyward.
· One minute after liftoff, you're breaking the sound barrier and continuing a climb towards the edge of the atmosphere.
· Two minutes later the Lynx trounces the Concorde's Mach 2.0 speed to reach Mach 2.9 and climb ever higher.
· At an altitude of 58.5km/36.4mi above the earth the engine is stopped and parabolic flight commences. Lynx continues her ascent until she reaches a height of around 103km/64mi and the passenger officially becomes an astronaut.
· For 5-6 minutes, the newly minted SXC Astronaut will experience weightlessness.
· Descent begins gradually but becomes quite fast in the latter stages, requiring a “pull out” maneuver wherein the spacecraft’s rate of descent is arrested quite rapidly. This will exert around 4.5Gs on the pilot and passenger for a period of up to 25 seconds.
· After a gliding flight of around 25 minutes following the extreme G-forces, the spacecraft lands back at its spaceport of origin.

Total flight time? 1 hour.

As part of the $100,000 package astronauts will undergo a series of training missions. First, a zero-G flight where astronauts are subjected to microgravity. Second, a G-force centrifuge designed to exert up to 4.5 G’s on the body for a period of time to make sure you are capable of handling the “pull out” maneuver. Next, time in the "Desdemona," a simulator for practicing the flight through both G-forces and video projection. Finally, training completes with a flight in an L-39 Albatross jet which emulates various phases of the actual space flight.

Upon completion of training, astronauts are given their training spacesuit as well as a patch for each mission completed. Other extras include a personalized scale model, a top gun jacket and a 3-day stay at a 5-star hotel.

Click image to enlarge

Onto the more technical aspects of the project, the Lynx spacecraft will be powered by four revolutionary rocket engines. Conventional booster rockets tend to be fueled by either toxic, expensive or rare compounds and are also only a one-shot deal, in that once ignition has occurred there is no way to extinguish the rocket until the fuel burns out and, once extinguished, there is no way to re-ignite the rocket. Mol and SXC are developing a rocket which will be able to run on a series of commonly sourced fuels, such as Jet Fuel, Kerosene or even bio-fuel. Additionally, a conventional rocket engine needs a full stripdown and overhaul between flights, whereas SXC’s engine would be certified for up to 5,000 flights. Even though the Lynx spacecraft will return to earth as a glider, Mol explains that in the event that the spacecraft wouldn’t be able to land back at its point of origin, it has the capability to reignite its rocket engine and divert to another airport.

Mol, who is also one of the co-owners of the Force India Formula 1 racing team, shared some thoughts on performance with us:

We would be using the came carbon materials [as in Formula 1]. We have a lot of experience in working with wind tunnels. It’s all about weight and drag reduction and being as efficient as possible, whether it be making a car a few seconds faster or a spacecraft able to go a few kilometers higher.

When asked about the possibility of incorporating elements of F1 racing with the SXC space program, Mol's response offers more than a glimmer of home for something quite extraordinary: "I’ve not started to really get into that yet, but it’s something I would love to do." Hmm—Space Race 2.0?

As far as the future application of the technology, Mol and SXC are developing another version of the ship that will have orbital capability and is designed to link any two points on the globe in 2 hours or less. For example, current airline travel time from London to Sydney is around 20 hours, but Mol hopes to be able to complete this in 1 hour 45 minutes. This version of the spacecraft is due for its first test flight in 10 to 15 years, so don't pack your bags quite yet but do start saving up.

Fun fact: Visitors to KLM’s Crown Lounge at Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport may have noticed the huge 1:6 scale model of the Lynx near the entrance. KLM have been in partnership with SXC for over three years now and are said to be thinking about potential tie-ins with their Flying Blue program. One of the issues they're encountering is that so few people have enough miles to redeem for a ticket to space. Those who go to space, however, will, according to Mol, earn “Space Miles.” Far more valuable than terrestrial frequent flyer miles, having these in your Flying Blue bank figuratively launches you into another realm.

[Photos: SXC]

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