Headlines > News > Pair push on in bid to beat Rutan team in space race

Pair push on in bid to beat Rutan team in space race

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Tue Sep 7, 2004 3:48 pm
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chabot imagesignonsandiego.com: Other people might have been discouraged, but Eric Meier and Phillip Storm have been upbeat since their 23-foot-long Rubicon 1 rocket blew up last month in a test flight near Queets, Wash.

“In an odd way, it really turned out well,” Meier said of the Aug. 8 explosion that destroyed the full-scale booster and the spacecraft it carried. “We’ve had a flood of interest since that event, which was really widely publicized.”

The publicity has helped the co-founders of Space Transport Corp., both in their 20s, raise the $29,000 needed to build a replacement rocket. It also refueled their dream to beat Burt Rutan, the renowned aircraft designer, and win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

The X Prize Foundation says 26 teams from around the globe have joined the space race. But most X Prize teams, like Meier and Storm, have been laboring in obscurity, eclipsed by the media excitement that has fixated on Rutan’s team in Mojave.

“They are the guys to beat; that’s a fair statement,” said Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation.

Rutan’s team essentially lapped the field June 21, when its SpaceShipOne rocketed to an altitude of 62 miles, earning astronaut wings for the test pilot, Mike Melvill. No other team has gone as far in manned flight tests.

Since then, Rutan has set Sept. 29 as the date to begin his official bid to win the Ansari X Prize, with a second flight following as soon as Oct. 4.

The X Prize Foundation created the contest in 1996 to encourage entrepreneurs to aim for the stars. It was modeled after contests held in the 1920s that were intended to promote those magnificent flying machines of early aviation.

The $10 million prize will go to the first team to build a reusable rocket ship with no government funding or support. The spacecraft must be capable of carrying a pilot to the edge of space, at least 62 miles above the Earth. It must carry almost 400 pounds in additional weight to demonstrate that it could carry two passengers. An additional condition is that the space shot be repeated in a two-week period.

As for the rest of the field, it’s unclear how many of the other computer-generated designs will ever get off the ground.

So far, at least two rockets have blown up during flight tests, triggering dramatically different responses at the headquarters for each team.

In Mesquite, Texas, Armadillo Aerospace team leader John Carmack told NewScientist magazine that the Aug. 7 crash of his rocket shortly after launch ended his bid. An Armadillo spokeswoman declined to be interviewed.

In contrast, Meier didn’t seem dejected as he discussed the loss of Rubicon 1 by telephone from Space Transport’s headquarters in Forks, Wash.

The fireball that sent their unmanned space capsule cartwheeling into the ocean was not a disaster, Meier said.

“I didn’t think then that the quest was dead and still don’t think so,” Meier said. “The prize might not be won this year. We’ll keep at the Rubicon project because it ain’t over till it’s over.”

Meier said his team’s vision extends beyond winning and toward the development of technology needed to create a space tourism business.

It’s a vision shared by Maryniak, at the X Prize Foundation.

“It’s really not fair sometimes to characterize these things as problems, because sometimes these things happen so you can learn,” Maryniak said. “This is what you do in the airplane and rocket business.”

Still, Maryniak conceded that time is running out in the race to win the Ansari X Prize.

That’s because the foundation has funded the $10 million prize by buying an insurance policy, which expires at the end of this year. It is sometimes called a “hole-in-one” policy because golf tournament organizers occasionally buy it to entice players with a big payoff.

Of the U.S. teams registered for the X Prize, Rutan’s team is the only one that has obtained the permit needed to make a space launch, said Hank Price, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

It is unclear whether teams planning to launch in other countries must satisfy government regulators.

Two foreign teams have proposed using a giant balloon to lift their rocket high into the atmosphere before it blasts off. In those scenarios, a rocket would be released from its tether after the balloon had floated to a specified altitude. The pilot would then ignite the engines a few seconds after release, a delay intended to ensure the rocket avoids hitting its balloon on its way into space.

One of the teams developing the balloon-launch idea, the Da Vinci Project of Toronto, has evoked strong skepticism in Saskatoon and Kindersly, communities near the proposed launch site. One expert told a Saskatchewan newspaper he doubted that a rocket “bigger than a Greyhound bus” could be safely launched amid the fierce winds that blow through the upper atmosphere.

The Da Vinci team leader, Brian Feeney, did not respond to requests for an interview, although he has maintained his plan is sound.

Last month, Feeney announced he has scheduled his team’s first manned launch for Oct. 2, made possible by an undisclosed cash infusion from a new sponsor, an online casino called GoldenPalace.com.

Other entries for the Ansari X Prize propose to launch their rockets like conventional ballistic missiles, either from land or sea. And some others are working on winged rockets that fly into space and land like conventional aircraft.

One entry, developed by Canadian Arrow, another team based near Toronto, is using a design based on the German V-2 rocket, made infamous during attacks on London during World War II.

V-2s made thousands of flights during the war, and with extensive testing afterward by the Americans, Russians and Chinese, the design may rank as the world’s most thoroughly understood rocket, said team leader Geoff Sheerin.

“Technically, we’re ahead of most people,” Sheerin said. “We have a working engine. We have propellant tanks. We’re right behind Burt Rutan.”

Yet, Sheerin acknowledged he is mindful of the possibilities for dramatic irony if something goes wrong and an errant V-2 were to crash, say, in London, Ontario.

A recurring refrain for many team leaders is an inability to raise enough money to support their space ventures.

Meier said he and Storm raised about $200,000 for their project. The Canadian Arrow team has raised about $5 million, Sheerin said.

Armadillo’s Carmack, who co-founded computer game developer id Software, was viewed as one of the few teams with enough financial resources to give Rutan a run. But Carmack said in July that he has spent only about $1.5 million on his rocket.

Together, they still pale in comparison to the estimated $25 million in funding that Rutan has received from his benefactor, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Together, Rutan and Allen have founded a business, American Mojave Aerospace Ventures, to exploit commercial possibilities for their technology.

Dov Chartarifsky, founder of Israeli-based IL Aerospace Technologies, estimates that he has amassed about $100,000 in funding and services, with the cash coming largely from his own pockets.

Like the Canadian Da Vinci team, Chartarifsky has proposed launching his rocket from a balloon. But the sort of helium balloon he would need costs $150,000, and he conceded he has not progressed beyond the drawing board.

“We’re looking for another Paul Allen,” Chartarifsky said, “for wealthy individuals in the United States and Israel.”

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