Image: EZ-Rocket
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The EZ-Rocket soars during a demonstration flight at the Countdown to the X Prize Cup exposition in October. The rocket plane is being readied for a record-setting flight in December. Then XCOR Aerospace plans to retire the craft.
By Senior space writer
updated 11/11/2005 9:32:35 PM ET 2005-11-12T02:32:35

A record-setting, point-to-point piloted rocket plane flight is scheduled for next month.

XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., is flying its EZ-Rocket from the inland Mojave Airport/Spaceport to California City — just 11 statute miles away, but still a stab at the record books.

The flight is scheduled for Dec. 3, said XCOR executive Aleta Jackson. "The distance record for point-to-point rocket-powered takeoff and landing is up for grabs," she told Space.com.

The firm’s EZ-Rocket fits the Class C1b Group IV, a vehicle that is launched from the ground with the rocket engines under control throughout the flight, Jackson said. The journey is to be monitored by the National Aeronautic Association.

At the controls for the trek from the spaceport to California City will be Dick Rutan, who made history in 1986 as co-pilot on the Voyager airplane that carried out the first nonstop, around-the-world flight without refueling.

Hauling the mail
Jackson said that the plan is to fly the EZ-Rocket back from California City to Mojave, around Dec. 10. Between flights, the rocket plane will be placed in a hangar in California City, she said.

"We also plan to deliver some mail to California City — deliver it, not just carry some postcards for souvenirs," Jackson added. "I don’t think that has ever been done with a piloted rocket-powered vehicle. We would like to set a precedent."

The EZ-Rocket "is pretty much ready to go," said XCOR’s Randall Clague, team leader of flight operations for the point-to-point hop. No modifications of the vehicle will be required for the 10-minute milestone flight, he said.

"We can get there comfortably, given the margins we have," Clague said. As for the rocket plane’s cargo of mail, he added: "It’s a unique form of delivery between post offices."

Twin rocket engines
With Dick Rutan at the controls, the rocket plane will soar to 11,000 feet during the flight.

The EZ-Rocket is a modified Long-EZ homebuilt aircraft. The vehicle is propelled by twin 400-pound thrust, regeneratively cooled rocket engines and fueled by isopropyl alcohol and liquid oxygen.

"As far as we know, it’ll be the first intentional cross-country flight of a rocket plane…and the first round trip under power," Clague told Space.com.

"It’s basically Dick’s payment," Clague continued, for flying the vehicle in its initial test program, because "all we ever paid him was breakfast — and we paid for the fuel."

Clague said it is easier and safer to fly the rocket plane back to Mojave from California City, rather than disassemble the craft and cart it home via ground transportation.

A decision is forthcoming about the person who will pilot the EZ-Rocket on the return leg to Mojave, Clague said. It could be Dick Rutan or former shuttle astronaut Rick Searfoss.

It was Searfoss who put the rocket-powered craft through its paces last month at the Countdown to the X Prize Cup festivities in Las Cruces, N.M. He is a former commander of the space shuttle Columbia, flying three shuttle missions in total.

Next up: rocket racing
Could the point-to-point rocket plane trip stir up others to try and defeat the record?

"If anybody else has a rocket plane and wants to try and beat the record after we set it … they are more than welcome to try it. We love competition," Clague responded.

Once the EZ-Rocket gets back to the Mojave Spaceport, the craft is to be retired, Clague said. "We built it as an operations demonstrator. It accomplished its mission. The technology and the airplane are three generations old now," he said.

XCOR Aerospace is on tap to design and build the first generation of X-Racers for the newly-formed Rocket Racing League.

It was announced in early October that the X-Racers are based on the design of XCOR’s EZ-Rocket. Next-generation vehicles will be using an airframe provided by Velocity of Sebastian, Fla.

Spearheading the Rocket Racing League is Peter Diamandis, who serves as the group’s chairman and co-founder. He is also the founder of the X Prize, which has been a leading force in speeding up the age of personal spaceflight.

The league has declared that the inaugural race of X-Racers will take place in October of next year during X Prize Cup activities in New Mexico.

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