Stefanie Lingle Beasley 2013-05-22 08:59:45
Space—the final frontier. In about two years, anyone with a spare hundred grand (and nerves of steel) will get the opportunity to be an astronaut—at least for a few minutes. That’s the plan of SPACE EXPEDITION CORPORATION, a firm with strong ties to Silicon Valley (think Google investors and local engineers). Space Expedition Corporation is the only competition for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and it’s about to promise you the ride of a lifetime. Since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, children everywhere have dreamed of becoming astronauts. Thanks to the grand imaginations of storytellers like Gene Rodenberry and George Lucas, the fantasy of space has seemed not just attainable, but inevitable. Reality, though, has been very different. To date, only about 500 people have broken through Earth’s atmosphere. We’ve never gone back to the moon, let alone figured out how to send a space ship out of our solar system, to boldly go where no man has gone before. But thanks to some very bright and ambitious engineers, businessmen, and marketers, space travel is about to happen, and it’s going to happen soon. Andrew Nelson, Michiel Mol, and Vikram Veerapaneni are just three of the men who are going to help space travel become a reality. All three fell in love with the idea of space as young boys growing up on opposite sides of the globe. A passion for space and technology has brought thesemen and their extraordinary teams together. On a recent Sunday morning at Buck’s in Woodside, the world-famous diner and haunt of Silicon Valley’s VC and tech crowd, I slid into a booth to chat with Nelson, COO of XCOR, and Veerapaneni, president of SaaVee. The topic: rockets and space. As we sat there, Buck’s charismatic owner, Jamis McNiven, stopped by the table to regale us with the tale of how he acquired a real cosmonaut suit for the restaurant’s ceiling from the Russian military high command in Moscow. “I really wanted to buy a Soyuz capsule, but they put a $1.3million price tag on it,” he laments. “Ross Perot ended up buying it.” The surreal conversation then segued to Formula One racing. It turns out that both Nelson, a veteran of the aerospace industry and Wall Street, and Veerapaneni, a cloud-computing expert, are speed junkies. While attending a Formula One race in Austin, Texas, a year back, Veerapaneni met Nelson and the team from Space Expedition Corporation. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Veerapaneni. “Not only did they have this great idea, but they were actually building the space ship to make it happen.” That’s where Nelson comes in. His company XCOR is building the space ship that will be run by Space Expedition. “Within the first year of operation, targets will have us doubling the number of people that have ever gone to space,” he says. He goes on to explain a Space Expedition flight. “You’ll meet at the spaceport (currently there is one in the Mojave desert and another in Curacao) and go through a routine medical exam and training. Once that’s completed, you’ll take your flight.” XCOR’s Lynx supersonic aircraft will take off and land like a traditional plane. But similarities to your most recent commercial airline flight end there. Four rocket engines will then thrust the craft past the sound barrier. You and the pilot (that’s right, only two people will be on board at a time) reach Mach 3—a speed most fighter pilots never experience. The trip will then take you beyond the Earth’s atmosphere for close to six minutes. “During that period, the passenger will experience the complete silence of space,” notes Nelson. “You will be able to gaze back at the Earth from a unique vantage.” The Lynx is equipped with a large glass canopy offering unobstructed views during flight. “The Lynx,” notes Nelson, “will then begin a descent and land like a plane.” This out-of-this-world-and-back adventure will take just about an hour. The Lynx is contrary to all spacecraft previously developed, including the Space Shuttle. It is equipped with a uniquely independent takeoff and landing system whereby the Lynx rocket engines can be switched off or on at will. There are no disposable carrier rockets, carriers, or landings at sea. The Lynx simply departs from an elongated track at the spaceport and lands there after its flight. Space Expedition Corporation (SXc) will be carrying passengers on two spacecraft built by XCOR—the aforementioned LynxMark II, which will reach 103 kilometers into deep space, and the LynxMark I, which will reach a comparatively modest 60 kilometers. The Mark I will depart from Mojave spaceport exclusively. The company will also offer optional SXc Training Missions, in addition to the complimentary preparatory program. Prospective passengers can experience G-forces in a G-centrifuge by taking a seat in a small cockpit, which flies circles at the end of a long pole (dust off that old copy of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker for a visual). If you’ve managed to enjoy the G-centrifuge, you can enhance your skills by experiencing a flight on theL-39Albatross Jet—a single- engine, tandem-seat jet trainer. This high-performance jet is ideally suited to prepare you for the spaceflight in the Lynx.Youwill occupy the backseat, behind a professional instructor pilot, and get used to flying in a high-performance aircraft while wearing a helmet and even pulling someG’s. You can also try the altitude chamber, where you will take a seat in a specially prepared tank, together with professional instructors. You will fly to a simulated altitude of about 10 kilometers, where you will experience several demonstrations of the high altitude environment, as well as a simulation of a rapid decompression. Space Expedition Corporation’s CEO, Michiel Mol, is one of the most successful e-commerce executives in Europe. “When I heard that Richard Branson was launching Virgin Galactic, I was one of the first to buy a ticket,” Mol recalls. “I told all my friends, when I was 8 years old, that I’d be an astronaut someday.” Several years ago, Mol and Branson were asked to discuss Virgin Galactic on a European television show. The co-founder of Space Expedition Corporation, Ben Droste, a former F-16 fighter pilot and Commander of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, saw Mol on the program and contacted him immediately. “Droste and his partners were looking for an entrepreneur to help handle the business side of their ideas. After learning more and more about the business, I invested and became CEO,” Mol says. “I love this job. It’s 24/7,”Mol said in a recent interview from SXc’s New York office. “I was in Tokyo last week, and I’ll be in Hong Kong next week. Space travel is fascinating to everyone. Wherever I go, people want to learn more.” Mol hopes to be one of the first passengers on an SXc flight, “hopefully later this year on a test flight.” It is a hope echoed byVeerapaneni. “I can’t wait to get on a flight,” he says. “In the meantime, he has been active in business development for SXc. His firm, SaaVee, which is working to create a variety of apps in conjunction with SXc, held a recent reception in Woodside at the home of Richard and Barbara Pivnicka to introduce the concept to some of Silicon Valley’s influencers and top decision makers. But what’s next? Yes, a certain number of people will want to try this life-altering experience, but the real goal is space travel between earthly destinations. How does a 90-minute flight from New York to Tokyo sound? Too good to be true? Well, it’s in the offing, and when you run the numbers, it begins to make economic and environmental sense. While it takes a significant amount of energy to exit the atmosphere, travel after that is almost completely free. Therefore, it is faster, cleaner, and quieter than current air travel. Notes Mol, “Space travel will open up new worlds for humanity with regards to science, education, economic growth, sustainability, and leisure.” Are you ready for takeoff?
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