XCOR's EZ-Rocket flew into the history books Saturday. The craft made a record-setting point-to-point flight, departing here from the Mojave California Spaceport, gliding to a touchdown at a neighboring airport in California City.
The rocket plane was piloted by Dick Rutan, no stranger to milestone-making voyages. In 1986, Rutan was co-pilot on the Voyager airplane that made the first nonstop, around-the-world flight without refueling.
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.
The EZ-Rocket is able to stop and restart its engines in midflight, as well as perform rocket-powered touch-and-goes on a runway.
Down and safe
With Rutan at the controls, the EZ-Rocket lifted off at 11:40 a.m. local time (2:40 p.m. ET). The craft touched down at the California City airport — about 10 miles (16 kilometers) northeast of Mojave — nine minutes later.
Stashed onboard the EZ-Rocket were four pouches of mail, a bill with a check attached, letters from around the world, and other items.
"He's down and safe," said Jeff Greason, XCOR's chief executive officer.
EZ-Rocket: end of the road
The point-to-point hop brings to a close the EZ-Rocket's flight program, with Saturday's flight No. 25, said Aleta Jackson, an executive for Mojave-based XCOR Aerospace.
"Today's flight is the culmination of the EZ-Rocket test series," Jackson told Space.com. Among projects on the books at XCOR Aerospace is designing and building 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.
Officials from the National Aeronautic Association witnessed the event. The NAA keeps tabs on world and United States aviation and space records. Also on hand were representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration's commercial space transportation office.
"This is a record-setting flight," Jackson said, in terms of distance and based on the rocket-powered airplane taking off from the ground, with the pilot controlling the rocket engine throughout the majority of the flight, and landing the craft.
"The other neat thing about this is that we're connecting Mojave Spaceport to California City," Jackson said. The California City airport may become an alternate landing spot if future rocket vehicles departing out of Mojave run into problems, she said.
Maximum speed of the rocket plane was estimated at 200 mph (320 kilometers per hour), climbing upward to about 8,500 feet (2,590 meters).
"There was enough propellant onboard to go around California City in case somebody was on the wrong runway," said Dan DeLong, XCOR's chief engineer.
Among those witnessing the EZ-Rocket's liftoff was Stuart Witt, the Mojave Spaceport's manager. This site was also the location of last year's historic suborbital treks of SpaceShipOne.
"Just another day here at Mojave," Witt told Space.com.