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Astronauts Weigh Acceptable Risk

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Tue Aug 31, 2004 12:44 pm
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chabot imageBy Dan Brekke: It’s a tiny drama in the history of space flight — an argument between a do-it-yourself Canadian astronaut and doubters alarmed he’s about to foolishly expose himself and others to harm by blasting off in a largely untested rocket ship.

But the debate surrounding Toronto’s Brian Feeney and his planned space launch raises important questions: How much freedom will the new generation of space explorers have as they search for cheap ways to fly people into the heavens? In trying to break away from costly, slow, government-run methods of developing manned flight systems, how much risk will we tolerate?

For the better part of the last decade, Feeney’s life has been the da Vinci Project. It’s a volunteer effort, based in Toronto, to build a spacecraft and fire a man — Feeney, actually — into space. Right now, Feeney and his da Vinci volunteers are locked in a race with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne crew, financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, to grab the $10 million Ansari X Prize for carrying out a private manned space launch.

The da Vinci team’s plan for going to space involves launching an immense helium balloon from the high prairie of western Saskatchewan. Suspended beneath the balloon will be a 25-foot-long, 8,000-pound rocket ship called Wild Fire. Feeney will ride in the ship’s capsule, and when he reaches 70,000 or 80,000 feet, he’s supposed to light up his engine and go screaming to the edge of space, 100 kilometers up or even higher. After a few minutes of weightlessness, Feeney’s capsule will plunge back into the atmosphere, then float back to Earth beneath a parachute.

There’s nothing inherently crazy about the idea. Space scientists have been launching rockets from balloons for decades. By its own account, the da Vinci Project has performed exhaustive computer modeling of Wild Fire’s systems and its mission. Although Feeney is only a novice pilot, with just 25 hours in small planes, he says he’s put in lots of grueling flight-simulator work and points out that flying a plane is nothing like piloting a space capsule. The capsule itself has also been designed to remain stable even if Feeney becomes impaired during his flight.

But there’s one huge unknown: Unlike Rutan’s well-planned, systematic and largely public program to prove the capabilities of SpaceShipOne, the Canadian team has never run an integrated end-to-end test of the launch system that Feeney’s life will depend on. That fact has stirred mocking skepticism in rocket-geek discussions online and drawn scathing criticism from a veteran Canadian space scientist living in the province from which da Vinci will launch.

Ted Llewellyn, a University of Saskatchewan space and atmospheric scientist who has conducted more than 130 rocket launches, questions da Vinci’s apparent reliance to date on modeling the launch.

“Computer models can do some wonderful things for you, absolutely no question,” Llewellyn says, pointing to his own experience. “But when you go into new areas, you really need the experimental proof that something works.”

Llewellyn doubts the da Vinci team is truly prepared for the challenge posed by the mission’s very first step: launching its 8,000-pound rocket ship by balloon. He also questions why so little information has been made public about da Vinci’s other systems, including its rocket engines, navigation and safety hardware.

“I don’t mean to sound negative. I’d like nothing more than for him (Feeney) to succeed — that would thrill me,” Llewellyn says. “But please, don’t make a fool of yourself.”

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