Greason agrees. “I’m convinced people will pay more to fly than it costs us to fly them. How much more? Even if it’s just a little, there are so many more people to fly than there are satellites to launch or microgravity experiments to conduct, that that’s where you’re going to make it. And I’m telling you, jeez, people are hungry.”
Still, on days when investors are skittish and equipment tests fail, members of the XCOR team could be forgiven for mulling other dreams—ones not involving windblown outposts and days with two sunrises and your dinner in a cup. Greason still routinely gets calls from his former Intel colleagues “asking me if I’ve got this out of my system yet and want to come back.”
XCOR’s EZ-Rocket is an almost comically tiny aircraft, but when tethered to the asphalt for a test, it lunges fiercely against its lead. The engines, no bigger than 40-ounce beer bottles, generate enough thrust to push the plane to Mach 1, if the airframe could handle it, which it can’t. Before lighting up the EZ-Rocket for a test run on the tarmac at Mojave Airport, the crew conducts a pretest in the hangar. It takes a while because Clague is meticulously ticking off 278 interim steps on a comprehensive checklist: helium loading, liquid-oxygen loading, rollout, propulsion preflight. “If you do everything on here,” says Doug Jones, one of the company’s founders, who has drifted over to look at the list, “the test can’t not work.”
There’s an odd balance here between pragmatism and audacity; that’s the position private rocketeers find themselves in. Greason has vowed to produce results, not outrageous claims—to blow gas into engines instead of blowing hot air in bars. By no stretch do these guys want to be perceived as flakes. Which may be why they don’t talk much about their personal visions, at least in public. But make no mistake: The XCOR team are in the business of building spaceships because they want to go. Where, exactly? “Doesn’t matter,” says Clague. “Up. Why? Buzz Aldrin said, 'If you have to ask, you won’t understand the answer.’”
Of all the reasons human beings cite for traveling to space, to an O’Neillian, two are paramount. The first is to make the species inextinguishable. “If we get hit by a dinosaur-killer, we’re in deep kimchi,” as XCOR engineer Aleta Jackson puts it—and therefore we’d better scatter our genetic material widely. The second is manifest destiny. We explore and conquer and settle by nature. It’s a trait of the species to want to boldly go where none have gone before, and then to put down roots, declaring Brigham Youngâ€like, “This is the place.”
This is not a group given to static Saganite contemplation. “Carl wanted to observe, and that’s great,” says Jackson. “But I’m an engineer by temperament, and sitting around not doing anything is not my idea of a good time. I’d like to go out to Ganymede and see what’s there. Does Io have life? What is the universe like from Alpha Centauri?”
Greason, for his part, would perhaps spend his last years in a homestead with an inflatable hydroponic greenhouse on the lip of the Heinlein Crater on Mars (not far, possibly, from Rick Tumlinson’s planned butterfly terrarium). One of the few XCORites who doesn’t think he wants to spend a big chunk of time off-Earth is electrical engineer Buzz Lange, who handles XCOR’s flight operations and helmed the EZ-Rocket for its engine test. His ideal vocation: “working the edge” as a low-Earth-orbit bush pilot, hauling people or freight to orbit and back. Avocation: first bagpiper in space. “If the plane can stand the weight, I’m taking the pipes up,” he declares. The image emerges of Lange, jowly with age, holding the fort back on Earth, playing “Scotland the Brave” in an empty hangar. “Of course,” he says, “if everyone else is going, I might get the itch too.”
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.