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XCOR Aerospace plans to set up spaceship center in Florida

XCOR Aerospace, one of a handful of firms developing suborbital spaceships, is planning to build its vehicles and fly passengers from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

XCOR Aerospace, one of a handful of firms developing suborbital spaceships, plans to build its vehicles and fly tourists, researchers and commercial payloads from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, officials announced Thursday.

The privately owned firm, currently based in Mojave, Calif., is developing a two-seat suborbital rocket plane called Lynx that is expected to begin test flights by early next year.

Eventually, the company expects to do up to four commercial flights a day, at a cost of $95,000 per person. The Lynx flights are similar to rides being offered aboard SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot vehicle owned by Virgin Galactic, a U.S. offshoot of Richard Branson's London-based Virgin Group.

Virgin Galactic, which is selling rides for $200,000 per person, plans to fly from a new spaceport outside Las Cruces, N.M. Its first vehicle is undergoing testing in Mojave, under the aegis of The Spaceship Company, a joint venture formed by Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites.

Both spacecraft are launched horizontally — Lynx by its own engines and SpaceShipTwo from beneath a carrier aircraft. They both blast themselves toward the edge of space, then fly back down to a runway landing.

SpaceShipTwo says it will start commercial service with flights beyond the internationally accepted boundary of outer space — 100 kilometers, or 62 miles — while XCOR is planning a gradual development process to bring Lynx up to that altitude and beyond.

The suborbital rides will give fliers a few minutes to float in microgravity and a view of Earth set against the blackness of space.

XCOR intends to fly Lynx from California, as well as from Florida and several other sites around the world — primarily in partnership with companies and space agencies, similar to how airline manufacturers lease planes and pilots under so-called "wet lease" agreements.

Several sites evaluated
XCOR evaluated several sites before settling on Florida. It was wooed in part by more than $4 million in state and local economic incentives and a skilled technical workforce idled by the end of NASA's space shuttle program last year.

The proposed site, to be located at the Shuttle Landing Facility, would include a hangar, flight operations center, manufacturing and assembly plants, and a center to support spaceflight participants.

XCOR said it hopes to open its Kennedy Space Center site in October 2014. The company expects to employ about 150 engineers and technicians by the end of 2018, said chief operating officer Andrew Nelson.

Commercial suborbital spaceflights are expected to bring in between $600 million and $1.6 billion in revenue within a decade after the start of operations, a recent study commissioned by the U.S. government and the state of Florida shows.

"When you have a vehicle like Lynx flying, you can expect to see technology clusters around it," Nelson told community leaders and guests at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Thursday, where the Florida expansion was announced.

Shifting roles for NASA
In the wake of the shuttles' retirement, NASA is in the midst of transforming its Florida launch site to handle a variety of government, commercial and military space and aviation projects.

XCOR previously announced that it would set up its business headquarters and a research and development center in Midland, Texas, lured in part by $10 million in financial incentives.

XCOR's agreement with NASA to use the Shuttle Landing Facility is still pending, said Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida, a state-backed economic agency that is brokering the deal and contributing $3 million to the project.

XCOR's Nelson agreed with that assessment of the state of negotiations with NASA. "It's not a done deal yet," he told reporters during a post-announcement teleconference.

He said XCOR's use of the facility would not rule out having other ventures operate there as well. "We would hope that there'd be lots of operators in the area, because that'd just mean there'd be more business for everyone," Nelson said.

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This report includes information from Reuters' Irene Klotz and NBC News' Alan Boyle.