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USA TODAY: Long-shot rocket aims for X Prize

Published by Robin on Fri Aug 20, 2004 6:20 am
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chabot image“Unless you’re on our team, you don’t know what’s going on,” Feeney says. “People don’t have any idea of our testing past or testing future.”

By Traci Watson, USA TODAY
A team of rocket buffs plans to launch a man into space this fall with the help of a giant balloon and cash from an online casino — creating a last-minute surprise entry in the $10 million X Prize competition.

The rocketeers of the da Vinci Project are a long shot for the X Prize jackpot, which will be given to the first team that can send a human into space in a reusable spacecraft. But the Canada-based group of volunteer space enthusiasts have added spice to a competition that so far has had only one serious entry.

If all goes as planned, in six weeks, a helium balloon will lift the da Vinci Project’s tiny rocket ship, dubbed Wild Fire, to an altitude of 80,000 feet. Then rockets will fire to shoot the vehicle into space, and the pilot will play online blackjack in honor of the project’s sponsor, GoldenPalace.com.

“We’re competing to win,” says Brian Feeney, 45, the optimistic da Vinci leader who will pilot the spacecraft. “We’re up against one of the most accomplished engineers of this or the last century, backed up by one of the largest wallets.”

Feeney’s opponent is American Mojave Aerospace Ventures, funded by Microsoft mogul Paul Allen. The odds-on favorite in the X Prize race, Mojave is making its first bid for the prize Sept. 29. Its spaceship was engineered by Burt Rutan, renowned for designing the Voyager, the first plane to travel around the world without refueling.

To win the $10 million prize, a team must send an occupied craft into space twice in two weeks. The prize is being offered by the X Prize Foundation, a non-profit group that seeks to put space flight within reach of the public.

Feeney and the Wild Fire team struggled to make it into the competition. Less than a month ago, they lacked the $500,000 needed to get the project off the ground and had no launch plans at all.

But Feeney’s public plea for money caught the attention of GoldenPalace.com, which bills itself as the world’s largest online casino. Company officials, known for embracing wild publicity stunts, agreed to fill the Toronto team’s funding gap.

“We definitely want to be the first casino in space,” GoldenPalace spokesman Drew Black said. “In the years to come, they’ll be talking about the first games in space, the first casino in space, and no one can take that away from us.”

In return for the money, GoldenPalace gets to plaster its logo on the rocket, the balloon and Feeney’s space suit. The team also modified its name from “The da Vinci Project” to “TheGoldenPalace.com Space Project: Powered by the da Vinci Project.”

Da Vinci engineers decided that Wild Fire would launch under balloon power because a balloon is cheaper and simpler than giant rockets. A balloon also meets the X Prize rules for reusability.

The spacecraft will return to Earth cushioned by parachutes, rather than landing on an airstrip as a plane does. To give the vehicle ample room to land, the da Vinci team will launch from Kindersley, Saskatchewan. The town is surrounded by prairie — perfect for a vehicle that will land somewhat at the mercy of the winds.

Feeney has been working on the spacecraft for eight years. An industrial designer with no college degree, he has managed through energy and enthusiasm to recruit 200 volunteers from around the world to work on his rocket. And he has raised $5 million in cash and equipment donations.

Unfortunately for Feeney, he’s up against the aristocracy of private spaceflight. In June, Mojave’s SpaceShipOne became the first spacecraft to carry a human to space without government backing. That flight carried only the pilot and therefore didn’t qualify for the prize. Under X Prize rules, a vehicle must carry either three people or a pilot and an equivalent amount of ballast.

Mojave plans to make its first X Prize-qualifying flight Sept. 29 and its second Oct. 4. Da Vinci plans to make its first flight Oct. 2 and will need eight to 10 days to prepare Wild Fire for its second flight. That means for da Vinci to win, something will have to go wrong with the competition’s spacecraft.

That’s not out of the question. The control system on SpaceShipOne failed during its flight in June. Rutan has fixed that anomaly. But a new problem would give the da Vinci team an opening to win.

The Rutan-Allen team says it welcomes the competition. “There’s a chance we might not make it,” says David Moore, a director of Mojave Aerospace. “There’s also a good chance we will.”

Feeney acknowledges his team faces “a mountain” of work to prepare its craft for launch. But outside experts say they’re worried about more than da Vinci’s chances of winning. They’re worried about a catastrophe.

Other X Prize entrants and space experts say they’ve seen no evidence that the da Vinci team has put its vehicle through the rigorous testing that is standard in the aerospace world. They say they’re stunned Feeney would fly without testing the balloon and unmanned versions of the vehicle.

“I wish him well,” space consultant Charles Lurio says. “I don’t want him to kill himself, but I am concerned.”

Underlining the dangers of a space shot, two other vehicles developed to win the X Prize were destroyed Aug. 7-8 in crashes during test flights. The spaceships were unmanned, and no one was injured.

Feeney declined to specify how much testing he’s done. But he says critics are ignorant of what the team has been doing to prepare for flight.

“Unless you’re on our team, you don’t know what’s going on,” he says. “People don’t have any idea of our testing past or testing future.”

By Traci Watson, USA TODAY

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