When suborbital travel happens, he'll be flyingJanuary 18, 2013: 9:36 AM ET
A conversation with a commercial space pilot.
By Peter Elkind, editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- When Fortune caught up with former NASA astronaut Richard Searfoss, the chief test pilot for XCOR Aerospace, he was traveling from his Tehachapi, California base to a Christmas family gathering in Idaho. His wife was behind the wheel, piloting their Toyota Highlander at a distinctly pedestrian 70 miles per hour (the speed limit was 75). As Searfoss, now 56, put it: "I'm long past living for adrenaline rushes."
Even so, Searfoss is eager to get back into space, this time at the helm of XCOR's Lynx, a reusable private spaceship that will take off and land more like a commercial airliner than a rocket. "I look at this as maybe the swan song of my career," says Searfoss. "It's not about kicking the tires, lighting the fires, at this point in my life. The raw excitement is much less of a motivator than doing something right."
Searfoss has worked with XCOR since 2005, helping develop its budget-conscious design for suborbital travel. "There are some people who are very sharp technically, and some who can't put up more than a website about what their dreams are—the promoters and the P.T. Barnums," Searfoss says. "I've decided to stay with the real technical players. "
It's a dramatic contrast from NASA, he continues, where he piloted two Space Shuttle missions and commanded a third. There, spaceships were completely refurbished between flights, and flew only a few times a year. Financial constraints weren't an issue for the agency or its contractors, Searfoss recalls: "Business model? Who needs a business model? We work for the government." XCOR, by contrast, has spent much of its existence living hand to mouth, designing a ship that will allow it to operate like a space version of Southwest Airlines.
"We want to make rocket-vehicle operations much more like airplane operations: turn it around, refuel it, and go again," says Searfoss. "It fits very nicely with the suborbital problem. You don't need that ragged performance envelope." Another plus for Searfoss: "Their concept of suborbital space involves an organic flight computer—a human being—at the controls."
After 14 years in business, notes Searfoss, XCOR has "moved beyond the shoestring operation. We were a month or two from having to shut the doors during some lean times. It's great when you've got someone like Branson, who's got a lot of money to play with. But his isn't the only recipe for success. There's so much that's not money-driven, it's long-term technology-driven."
"The brilliant thing Southwest Airlines did in the early days was their business model—the recognition that those expensive capital assets aren't making a penny sitting on the ground. Those kinds of philosophies are what XCOR is doing. That's stuff no one's thought about when it comes to rocket operations. If you're able to fly one of these vehicles four times a day, that just drives the cost way down."
While suborbital tourists will experience about five minutes of weightlessness, Searfoss found the view of earth a "much more profound" experience. "The images that are seared into the brain that you see—that's the life-changing experience for me. That's going to be the case for most people who do the suborbital thing."
Ultimately, XCOR hopes to have a fleet of Lynxes operating around the world, with each offering a vastly different vantage point from space. Its management team muses about selling a "six-continent pass."
"It's coming," says Searfoss. "It's not just la-la land or space dreamers stuff. This is really coming." XCOR executives have already begun musing about the day when space travel is commonplace, according to Searfoss. "I want to retire on the moon!" says chief engineer Dan DeLong. "I want to retire on Mars!" says CEO Jeff Greason.
"Guys," Searfoss says he's told them, "You're both crazy. I want to retire in Tehachapi. I just want to fly to space three or four times a week."