Last week, I rode a rocket-powered plane into space. We thundered down a runway at the Mojave Air & Space Port, then pointed the nose nearly straight up and hurtled toward the stars. As we climbed, the sky started darkening—and out the window to my right, the horizon flipped 90 degrees to the left.
Up, and up, and up we went, the cockpit’s altimeter whirling in dizzying circles. We passed 50,000 feet, and then 60,000 feet, and then—
“We just cracked the sound barrier,” said Erik Anderson, who was sitting to my left and gracefully nudging the spaceplane upward. “We’re at Mach 1.3, accelerating…straight up through 80,000 feet now.”
“Are those the Channel Islands?” I asked, pointing to splotches of land just visible offshore.
“Yes,” Anderson said. “We’ll see them better once we get up there. OK. It’s going to build up to 2.8 g’s very briefly just as we finish off here, so you’ll really feel it.”
Weightlessness is a wonderful experience. It feels like magic. It really does.
From there, I could see the Channel Islands and the full, clashing sprawl of southern California’s deserts and cities. It was magnificent.
“I apologize we can’t see the Bay Area because the database doesn’t go that far,” Anderson said. “But the view would be awesome.”
Suddenly, a head appeared outside the window to my right. “Yeah, we need an upgrade on the visuals,” said test pilot Brian Binnie, casually draping an elbow over the glass-less windowsill.
Obviously, we weren’t actually 66 miles above Earth and Binnie wasn’t superhumanly hovering outside my window. Instead, we were at XCOR Aerospace, in a flight simulator that demonstrates what the company’s second-generation Lynx spaceplane could eventually do.
“How curved would that horizon actually be?” I asked Binnie.
“You wouldn’t see the Earth as a pearl, but you do get a very distinct curvature,” he said.
After a 3.5-minute rocket burn, we had reached an altitude where—if we’d really been flying—we would not only see that gently curving horizon, but would experience about 3.5 minutes of weightlessness before gliding back down to Earth.
“Weightlessness is a wonderful experience. It feels like magic. It really does,” Binnie said, with a small smile. He was familiar with the sensation, having flown Virgin Galactic‘s SpaceShipOne to suborbital space.
Turns out, even the illusion of space travel, of watching Earth drop away and quietly floating a smidge closer to the stars, is pretty fantastic. I still dream of being an astronaut, orbiting Earth, and visiting the moon, yet have recently begun to consider whether hitching a ride with any number of commercial spaceflight companies might be a quicker ticket to a shadowed sky, curved horizon, and zero gravity.
Right now, XCOR is still working on its first Lynx spaceplane (the Lynx Mark I), which sits in a hangar here at the port.
“It’s an airplane, just with very strange propulsion,” Anderson says.
A two-seater, the Lynx offers a cozy, 15-minute ride to space and back for one tourist at a time. In addition to your own personal pilot, you get to wear a snazzy pressure suit that makes for great photos and has the added bonus of life-saving capabilities if something goes wrong. XCOR offers tickets to suborbit for $150,000 and has already sold more than 300 rides, although—like their competitors—the company won’t speculate on when commercial flights will actually begin.
For now, XCOR teams are working on refining the propulsion system and maximizing safety. “We’re still trying to do stuff that nobody has done before,” says lead propulsion engineer Jeremy Voigt, who test fires rockets across the runway near an old World War II ammo bunker. It’s a fun job, but it’s also incredibly serious.
“Space is hard. Engines are hard,” Voigt says. “But as long as we can get the vehicle down safely, we can fix it.”
As designed, the Lynx Mark I won’t fly as high as the simulation I’m currently in. And some of the Mark II flights might not make it all the way to 350,000 feet—apparently I’m a lighter-than-average payload, which gave us an extra 20,000 feet or so.
“Zero gravity fun time is over now,” Anderson says, as digital Earth starts growing larger in the cockpit’s canopy of windows. “We’re back at 1 g.”
Even though I haven’t really been weightless, and haven’t really seen California from 350,000 feet up, I’m still a bit bummed to be leaving “space.” I can only imagine how much more profound, and physically challenging, the actual experience of spaceflight must be. As we descend, the Lynx acts as a glider – similar to what the space shuttle did—and offers pilots a lot of flexibility in lining up landings.
Anderson, for fun, does an aileron roll to the left. Then, at my prompting, we roll to the right. “Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “Once we’ve done one, we gotta unwind. Otherwise you’ll wind up all twisted.”
Then, a little more than 15 minutes after we blasted off, we’re back on the runway at Mojave.
“Time for champagne and photos with your friends!” Binnie says.
I can’t tell if he’s joking or not, but I dearly hope a good bottle of bubbles is included with the ticket price. Going to space and back, then celebrating the adventure with bubbly? That would truly be out of this world.