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British tycoon Sir Richard Branson (left) and maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan are racing to put the first paying passengers into space — at $200,000 per 2 1/2-hour flight. (MICHAEL BELFIORE)

License to Thrill

Meet the first commercial rocketship pilots.

Searfoss says piloting a rocketplane is “all very much the case of just managing your energy.” With no fuel left in the tanks for a landing, says Searfoss, “it’s just a question of doing exactly what glider pilots do, exactly what a shuttle commander does...to just position yourself to get to the endgame: stopped on the runway safe and sound.”

So far, XCOR’s space pilot corps is a one-man show, but the company anticipates hiring more pilots after Searfoss flies the first Lynx flight tests to space, which it hopes will take place by next year. “We have a few in mind, not at liberty to say who, but they have military backgrounds as well,” says Searfoss. He and his colleagues haven’t yet worked out a program for training new pilots, but it will most likely include high-G training in acrobatic aircraft and time in XCOR-built simulators. There will not be much, if any, zero-G time.

As for me, I can breathe and strain with the best of them, but I’ll leave the piloting to the professionals. Besides, when I hit zero G, I want to be free to move about the cabin. 

Michael Belfiore is the author of Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space and a forthcoming book about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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