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Next space race: Private craft prepare to launch

By Leonard David
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Atmospheric rentry of the da Vinci Project's spacecraft, Wild Fire,  in this artistic rendering.
Atmospheric rentry of the da Vinci Project's spacecraft, Wild Fire, in this artistic rendering.
Space Exploration
Ansari X Prize
da Vinci Project

( -- A piloted rocket ship race to claim a $10 million Ansari X Prize purse for privately financed flight to the edge of space is heating up.

Aerospace engineer, Burt Rutan, leader of Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, has formally announced a timetable for back-to-back flights of the firm's SpaceShipOne rocket plane.

Rutan and his team have given its official 60-day notice, with the first X Prize attempt set for September 29 from the inland Mojave Spaceport in California. To win the $10 million, SpaceShipOne will need to make a second flight within two weeks, by October 13.

Hot on Rutan's heels is Brian Feeney, leader of the Canadian da Vinci Project. Feeney also reported today that his team is rolling out on August 5 their completed X Prize vehicle -- the balloon-lofted Wild Fire rocket. The public unveiling will take place at the team's Dowsview Airport hanger in Toronto.

The da Vinci Project Team, widely heralded as a contender for the $10 million purse, will pursue its own Ansari X Prize space flight attempts this Fall.

Crack shots

The announcements were made at an X Prize Foundation press briefing, held today at the Santa Monica Airport in Santa Monica, California.

"These teams with their different approaches show real out-of-the-box thinking," said Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation, based in St. Louis, Missouri. "That's what the Ansari X Prize is doing...allowing people to innovate and learn how to operate a new class of vehicle," he said.

In order to win the Ansari X Prize, teams must build a safe and reusable space vehicle built to carry one pilot and the weight equivalent of two passengers 62 miles (100 kilometers) into suborbital space. The vehicle must be privately financed and safely launched twice within a two-week period. The first registered Ansari X Prize team to complete this feat will win the $10 million prize and a trophy.

Fuel and go

"We're not seeing any breakthroughs in physics or materials science here," Diamandis said. We've gotten it down to a point where a small group of people can do this routinely over and over again...fuel and go."

Diamandis said that low-cost aviation comes from the robustness of the systems. The experience gained from repeatedly flying aircraft of all shapes and sizes has spurred into being a huge industry.

"And that's what we need to do in the space world to get to that point," Diamandis said. "It's the cost of operations that makes the space shuttle cost three-quarters of a billion dollars per launch. Fuel is one percent of the cost. It's the operations that we have to work on," he added.

Sky-to-space trek

The Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne scored a major milestone June 21 at the Mojave Spaceport, becoming the first private piloted vehicle to streak out beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Test pilot Mike Melvill flew the rocket ship to 328,491 feet (approximately 62 miles or 100 km). That sky-to-space trek allowed Melvill to become the first civilian to fly a privately-backed spaceship out of the atmosphere and the first private pilot to earn astronaut wings.

The June 21 flight was not without incident. Astronaut Melvill's expert piloting skills came into play as SpaceShipOne experienced a flight control malfunction. The vehicle did not climb as high as planned. Furthermore, the air-launched rocket plane reentered south of the intended recovery point. While not in the flight plan, this suborbital trajectory excursion was well within the vehicle's glide capability, with SpaceShipOne winging back to a normal landing at the Mojave Spaceport.

Shortly after the June 21 flight, Rutan said that ground checks showed that all systems aboard SpaceShipOne were operating properly and data analysis showed the details of the anomaly. That being the case, he said there were no current plans at that time to perform additional shakeout flights in connection with the Ansari X Prize.

The heat is on

The offer of a $10 million Ansari X Prize expires as of January 1, 2005. So the heat is on among an international cadre of rocket-to-space groups. More than 20 teams from seven countries have registered to compete for the Ansari X Prize.

The approaches taken to snag the purse are as varied as the number of contestants. For example, the SpaceShipOne Project is backed by billionaire Paul G. Allen, in the range of $20 million to $25 million.

Meanwhile, the Toronto-based da Vinci Project is billed by the group as the largest all-volunteer technology project in Canadian history with some 100,000 people-hours already spent on the project thus far.

SpaceShipOne is toted into the air underneath the White Knight carrier plane. From there, it is released to speed toward space under power of a hybrid rocket motor. The da Vinci effort utilizes the world's largest reusable helium balloon to haul the piloted Wild Fire rocket to an altitude of 80,000 feet (24,400 meters). From that sky-high point, the liquid oxygen/kerosene-fueled rocket ignites for the trip to the edge of space.

Can-do, home-brew

Allen, sole investor of SpaceShipOne and partner in Mojave Aerospace Ventures, LLC, said in a press statement released today:

"This competition has proven that there are many different ways to attack the challenges set out by the Ansari X Prize. From the start we have approached SpaceShipOne with a 'can-do, home-brew' attitude," Allen said. "We are grateful that our previous flights have brought even more attention to the Ansari X Prize and given more momentum to the groundswell of excitement that continues to build for the long-term potential of affordable space exploration."

"In one sense, the X Prize has already succeeded," Diamandis said. "We've sparked a diverse set of vehicles that are being tested and built. Secondly, we've got people excited about this market place."

As the competition speeds up into high gear, Diamandis said there are several additional sponsorships still available for the Ansari X Prize competition.

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