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大众太空旅游要来了

Peter Elkind 2013年01月23日

美国一家商业航空公司的目标就是打造太空版的西南航空,把太空旅行变成司空见惯的旅游项目,让人们都能体验失重的奇妙感受。难道大众太空旅行时代真的要到来了吗?

    《财富》杂志联系上美国宇航局(NASA)前宇航员、XCOR宇航公司(XCOR Aerospace)现首席试飞员理查德•希尔福斯时,他正从位于加州德哈查比的家中赶赴爱达荷州的圣诞家庭聚会。驾车的是希尔福斯的妻子,这辆丰田汉兰达(Toyota Highlander)以波澜不惊的70英里时速向前行进(道路限速是75英里/小时)。现年56岁的希尔福斯是这样说的:“我早已不再追求那种肾上腺素奔涌的生活了。”

    即便如此,希尔福斯仍然渴望能够重回太空。这一次他驾驶的将是XCOR公司的“山猫号”(Lynx)太空飞船。这是一艘可重复使用的私人飞船,比起火箭,它更像一架可以起飞降落的商业客机。“我把它看成有可能是自己职业生涯的绝唱,”希尔福斯说。“我的人生已经到了这样一个阶段,事情的意义并不在于发射升空。我的动力是做正确的事情,其中原始激情的因素要少很多。”

    从2005年开始,希尔福斯开始跟XCOR公司进行合作,帮助后者开发了适用于亚轨道旅游的廉价方案。“一些人在技术上非常厉害,而另一些人所能做的不过是建起一家网站来空谈自己的梦想——他们是推销商,类似于菲尔斯•巴纳姆的人,”希尔福斯说。“我决定跟那些真正懂技术的人站在一起。”

    情况跟在美国宇航局反差巨大,希尔福斯继续说道。他曾在那里执行过三次太空飞行任务,并担任第三次任务的指挥官。在美国宇航局,飞船执行太空任务后会经过全面检修,而每年的太空任务也只有区区数次。资金短缺对美国宇航局或其承包商来说并不是问题,希尔福斯回忆说:“商业模式?谁需要商业模式呢?我们是为政府工作。”相比之下,XCOR公司在大部分时间仅能维持生存。这家公司正在设计一艘飞船,它的运作模式就像太空版的西南航空公司(Southwest Airlines)客机。

    “我们希望让火箭飞船的运作模式更像一架客机:调头,加油,再起飞,”希尔福斯说。“它非常适合于解决亚轨道旅游的问题,并不需要那些参差不齐的性能图表。”希尔福斯又补充道:“他们的亚轨道旅游概念涉及一个进行控制的有机飞行计算机系统,即宇航员。”

    希尔福斯指出,在成立14年后,XCOR公司已经“超越了小本经营的范畴。曾经在某些艰难时期,我们差不多过一两个月就得关门大吉。如果拥有理查德•布兰森这类人的支持,的确很不错,因为他们有大把的钱可以投进来。但钱不是成功的唯一秘诀,很多东西并不是由资金驱动,而是由长期积累的技术驱动。”

    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."

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