License to Thrill

Meet the first commercial rocketship pilots.

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)
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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 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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