Three founders leave XCOR and start Agile Aero
Three XCOR Aerospace founders who recently left the company have formed Agile Aero, a new company aimed at tackling the problem of long development times in the aerospace industry.
On Nov. 23 of this year, XCOR announced that Jeff Greason, founder and CTO, was leaving the company. The press release was simple, short, and lacked any detailed information. He would remain on the board, but would not be involved in the company’s day-to-day operations.
This was followed by the news that Dan DeLong had left the company two weeks prior. Aleta Jackson, a third founder, also revealed she was leaving the company. Only Doug Jones, the fourth of the original founders would remain with the NewSpace company.
Greason, Delong, and Jackson left XCOR to start working on a new company: Agile Aero, a space research company also based in Midland, Texas. The focus of the company is to shorten the time it takes to create integrated vehicles.
Greason said Agile Aero is a group of experts that have been around the industry for a long time. He noted that while they will be sharing some of that expertise with other companies through consulting, they will be working on a common problem: long development cycles.
“Rapid prototyping has occurred in payloads and satellites, but not in [integrated] vehicles,” Greason said. “XCOR made a lot of progress with rocket engines, but integrating vehicles takes a long time. We think there is a path to change the vehicle design so that vehicles can be built quickly.”
The rapid development of integrated systems is about more than just fabrication. There are many subsystems that have to go together.
“The rise of open interfaces have been a key to how payloads and satellites have been built lately,” Greason said. “Can the same thing be done with vehicles? Something that works for sonic, hypersonic and rocket systems? A way for systems to be built quickly and work together quickly? We have a firm grasp of the question, if not the full solution yet.”
There was excitement in Greason’s voice when he talked about the possibilities for Agile Aero.
“It has been 21 years since I decided to get into the commercial space business,” Greason said. “The industry has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go. I think that for the transportation industry to be successful, the time to market has to be shortened. We need to learn faster. This will make it easier to invest in companies.”
The road to XCOR and Agile Aero started in the late 1990s when all four of the founders had been working for Rotary Rocket Company, a firm that had bold ideas of single stage to orbit vehicles. The Roton was a hybrid – part rocket, part helicopter – that promised to deliver cargo to space cheaply and routinely.
In 1999, the company succeeded in flying a test article, but that was about it. Despite a lot of funding and some really smart people, they could not secure the financial backing to complete the vision. Pink slips went out during their rocket tests. The company would shutter its doors in 2001. Today, all that remains of Rotary Rocket is the hollowed out shell of a spacecraft baking in the hot desert Sun at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
It was during the time of layoffs at Rotary Rocket that the kernel that would become XCOR sprouted and took root. Sitting around a dining room table in the dry desert of California, the four founders devised a plan to make space travel truly affordable. They developed a business case that they hoped would start a new era for commercial space. That plan was XCOR.
In the early days, XCOR wowed the NewSpace crowd with their skills and business acumen. They realized early on that they had to show they could make their rockets work. At the time, most concepts for commercial space were just that: concepts. Most all presentations at the time consisted of PowerPoint slides of what could be possible, given a not-so-insignificant amount of funding. It was at a Space Access conference in Phoenix, Arizona, where XCOR changed the game by running a fully functional 15-pound nitrous oxide and methane engine. The “Tea Cart Motor” was a safe, reliable rocket motor that was demonstrated by firing it inside the hotel conference area. This was a dazzling display to the attendees and a source of mild panic for everyone else at the hotel. XCOR dared to build real hardware and it paid off.
XCOR would top the Tea Cart with the EZ-Rocket, a Burt Rutan designed Long-EZ kit plane retrofitted with a pair of 400-pound (181-kilogram) rocket engines. With this machine, XCOR had flight hardware demonstrating the engine capabilities that the industry desperately needed. Each step of XCOR seemed better than the last. The announcement of the Lynx suborbital spacecraft seemed to be the next step in the company’s evolution.
XCOR was an early mover not only in hardware but also in legislation. It was through the efforts of the XCOR founders and the specialists they brought onboard, like Randal Clague, that allowed them to work with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) and shape policy – the very policies that make space opportunities, like Blue Origin’s New Shepard and SpaceX’s Dragon, possible. The XCOR team were the pioneers.
But XCOR, like all companies, grew up. They branched out to dual locations, opening a new headquarters in Midland, Texas. In March of 2015, Jeff stepped aside as CEO, a position he held since XCOR first started, and turned the reigns over to Jay Gibson, an Air Force veteran with stints at the Department of Defense and Beechcraft. His specialty was in agile organizations, something that fit in with XCOR’s philosophy.
In June 2015, Gibson reorganized XCOR leaving Greason and DeLong without any management responsibility. In time, the men decided it was time to do something else.
“I would never leave a project in the middle, but I was no longer in a position to effect that project,” Greason said. “I hope that XCOR is successful. I want XCOR to be successful. As to direction, a small company that is working with one co-located team and a large company that runs on processes are two different entities. They are two different groups optimized to do different jobs. I belong in a tightly knit company. If XCOR still had that, I would be there.”
Gibson said the departing founders built a great team of people working on engines and spacecraft.
“The company is transitioning and evolving,” Gibson said. “The culture is different from when the founders started 15 years ago. They wanted to be more challenged than they had been at XCOR.”
Gibson said Jackson had a different roll and wasn’t involved on the technical side of the company.
“She played a strong role in recruiting and helped make XCOR what it is,” Gibson said, “Her role had changed and it made sense that there wasn’t a fit for her anymore.”
Meanwhile, Mike Massee, a 14-year employee of XCOR, has also announced his departure via Facebook.
Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.