XCOR Thoughts

For those of you who read my blog but somehow hadn’t heard the news already, three of XCOR Aerospace’s four founders left the suborbital rocket startup this past week. I got a notification last week on LinkedIn about Dan DeLong leaving, but found out today via Twitter and a press release from XCOR that Jeff Greason and Aleta Jackson had both left as well. For some reason this news feels like a little bit of a gut punch, so I feel like sharing some of my rambling, semi-coherent thoughts on the subject.

I’ve been following XCOR since they first started in 1999. I was barely 19 at the time, and had been interacting with (arguing with) Doug Jones, Jeff Greason, and Dan DeLong on the sci.space.* usenet groups for about three years by that point. I remember John Hare sending me an email while I was in the town of Bolinao on my mission (shortly before 9/11) with pictures of the EZRocket’s first flights. I remember crashing on XCOR’s hangar floor the night before watching SpaceShipOne’s first flight (and being terrified by how much that building creaks in the Mojave winds). I remember being grateful for all the legwork XCOR (particularly Randall Clague) did in trying to help shape the reusable vehicle experimental permit and launch licensing process in a way that protected the uninvolved while enabling the industry to learn and grow. I remember XCOR encouraging Masten to move down to Mojave, and later helping us in our successful Lunar Lander Challenge attempts. I remember watching the flights they did of the X-Racer, and being impressed by how technically competent their team always felt. I remember Jeff Greason serving on the Augustine Committee, acting as the voice of reason, and a sort of “Elder Statesman1” representing the commercial space industry. I could probably go on.

It just feels weird thinking of the idea of an XCOR without Jeff, Dan, and Aleta there.

While we don’t know the cause of their departures from XCOR, I’m not sure whether them being booted, or things getting bad enough that they would rather leave than stay another few years is worse. I know one of my fears as a founder has been the idea of eventually losing control and being kicked out of my own startup. That would be almost as awful as having my family disown me. I hope that’s not the situation, and that it was more one of the three of them decide that they needed a change of pace and/or seeing new opportunities they needed to pursue. I also hope for the sake of my many friends still there at XCOR that the company will manage to soldier on and make it to flight with Lynx. I also hope that Jeff, and Dan, and Aleta will soon find new projects that can use their skills, and that they can yet see all the hard work they put into XCOR pay off for them and for the industry.

I’m not sure if I’ve really added anything, but this news just has me in a bit of a funk. Good luck, my friends!

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
  1. Not suggesting that he’s old, just that he came across with the gravitas of someone significantly older than he is.
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9 Responses to XCOR Thoughts

  1. johnhare john hare says:

    I remember meeting Jeff for the first time at a symposium in Seattle. It was the one where the layover in Salt Lake City had Jon and I walking around an airport with an experimental pump. It was my first space conference of any kind, and XCOR had just started from the ashes of Rotary Rocket. I remember my naivete in thinking that the replica X1 would be flying in a very short time, along with dozens of other projects that never flew.

    I remember my first Space Access when Henry Vanderbilt let me speak on my project on the recommendation of Jeff and the gang. Then I remember that most of the useful feedback came from the plank owners of XCOR. At the time I thought I was a player getting a major ego boost from the pros. One of the conferences I was discussing Long-EZs demonstration vehicles with Doug and the German intern, and didn’t realize that they weren’t actually saying anything relevant, shortly before the EZRocket flew. Jeff thought they were talking out of turn. I still have a model of it somewhat the worse for wear.

    I remember getting a report from them on a vehicle concept of mine dated 10 Sep 2001. A few weeks later I rode with Dan and Aleta from LA to Mojave to see the EZRocket. I still remember the complexity of the simple pressure fed engine relative to the schematics in text books. I couldn’t function trace it even though they let me crawl all over and under it. Five o’clock the next morning I saw Tim Pickens sitting with Burt Rutan at LAX McDonalds, and managed to argue with Burt about the value of the EZRocket flights.

    I’ve been out of the loop for quite some time so this news caught me by surprise. XCOR has been my favorite start up and I am hoping that all goes well for Jeff, Aleta, and Dan. I’m hoping their experience parallels mine from a few years back. I went broke in the downturn, but then ended up with a partner that improved the business and enabled survival through the recession. I had a divorce about a year later that turned out to be for the best from a health, stress, and financial viewpoint.

    So guys, keep your jets hot, skin cool, and wheels in the wells.

  2. Hop David says:

    A gut punch for me too. I’ve been a fan of Jeff Greason for some time. Hope he still remains a player.

  3. N/A says:

    Seems like two outta three are at

    http://agile.aero/

    now. Wonder what they are up to…

  4. Gerald R Everett says:

    Got to agree that it just doesn’t seem right that Jeff et al, will not be at XCOR. I don’t know why that’s happening, but I have seen enough businesses through there evolution to know that quite often the terrific, creative people who start them just aren’t able to see them through the whole cycle. I hope XCOR benefits from the changes and Jeff can look back on his time there with great happiness. I don’t think he or you or anyone should ever feel bad that you don’t have the complete skill set it might take to bring a company from conception to successful business. Tomorrow among all the other things we have to be thankful for, let us all be thankful for the wonderful work we all have had the opportunity to be involved in and all the great people we have been privileged to work with in our lives. A lot of these things look different when your 68 like I am.

  5. Jon, sharing many of your sentiments and memories. What the Founders will be doing remains a fluid situation but should expect new data to start coming out after the weekend.

  6. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Charles,

    I’m not sure they’ll have info to share that soon, but I hope they can find something new where they can make a difference.

    ~Jon

  7. Dave Salt says:

    My feelings echo yours, Jon.

    I really do hope this is a strategic move to allow them to pursue the orbital RLV in a more direct manner, though I do appreciate that life can sometimes be rather cruel.

  8. DougSpace says:

    Perhaps some unwarranted speculation here, but I wonder if the investors on the XCOR board were feeling like XCOR didn’t have enough revenue and they were getting ancey to see profitability after so many years. This seems to be compatible with what John Ginson said at ISPCS. Perhaps there were management changes that narrowed the ability of Greason to direct things in the direction that he thought best. So perhaps an idea kicked around for some time for the rapid prototyping of rocket craft was pulled off the shelf and Greason said to his fellow founders, “Hey, why don’t we start a new company based around this idea and we leave XCOR so that we can dedicate time towards it”. Working with other companies to solve their near-term needs could be a good business model.

  9. Robert Clark says:

    In regards to getting funding, DARPA just cancelled a $30 million contract they awarded to Boeing to create a small airlaunch system for DARPA’s ALASA program. And the DoD’s Super Strypi small orbital launcher just failed in a test launch.

    Then there are plenty of opportunities for the small space companies to produce and get funding for small suborbital and orbital launchers.

    How this can be done in a low cost way is that you first produce the small suborbital launchers. Both defense agencies and scientific researchers want such suborbital launchers so you can get funding for those. But the key is the engines for such suborbital launchers already exist in the SpaceX Kestrel and the Project Morpheus methane engines. Since developing engines from scratch takes a significant amount of time and cost, this would cut off a significant amount from both of those from the development.

    Then once you have the suborbital rockets, you use them in multiple cores with a smaller version upper stage, a la the Delta IV Heavy model, to produce a small orbiter launch. Running the numbers I was surprised to see using just the not particularly high performance pressure-fed Kestrel or Morpheus engines, you can get an orbiter launcher without even needing a high propellant ratio:

    Orbital rockets are now easy.
    http://exoscientist.blogspot.com/2015/08/orbital-rockets-are-now-easy.html

    Dave Masten’s DARPA Spaceplane, page 2: an Air Launched System.
    http://exoscientist.blogspot.com/2014/08/dave-mastens-darpa-spaceplane-page-2.html

    Bob Clark

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