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Gentlemen, Start Your Rockets

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Tue Sep 7, 2004 3:56 pm
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businessweek.com: The race for space is heating up as private outfits head for the launchpad

Hoping to promote transatlantic tourism, French-born New York hotelier Raymond Orteig in 1919 pledged a prize of $25,000 — worth about $750,000 today — for the first nonstop flight between New York and France. In the 1920s, nine teams scrambled to try to win that prize. Then Charles A. Lindbergh piloted the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic in May, 1927, and commercial airlines soon followed.

About 10 years ago, entrepreneur Peter H. Diamandis figured a prize might have the same effect on manned space travel. So he set up the X Prize Foundation and coaxed wealthy contributors to offer a purse of $10 million to the first privately funded, three-person spacecraft to fly into suborbital space twice within a two-week period. On June 21, the world witnessed the lead contender: SpaceShipOne, designed by aeronautics engineer Elbert L. “Burt” Rutan with backing from billionaire Paul G. Allen, soared up 62 miles to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere.

At the end of this month, the Rutan-Allen partnership will make a real run for the prize. The first flight is slated for Sept. 29, and if it comes off without a hitch, Rutan says he might climb into a passenger seat for the second launch on Oct. 4. But by then one of the two dozen other X Prize competitors will be close on Rutan’s heels. A Toronto group called the da Vinci Project plans the first launch of its Wild Fire rocket on Oct. 2 from the remote airport in Kindersley, Sask. It’s a goal that da Vinci head Brian J. Feeney, now 45, has been working toward full time since the week the X Prize was announced in 1996.

Like SpaceShipOne, which was built by Scaled Composites LLC, Wild Fire will ignite its engine high in the sky. But instead of being ferried up to 50,000 feet by a mother jet, as happens with Rutan’s ship, Wild Fire will float up under a giant helium balloon, then fire its rocket at around 70,000 feet. “We know we’re up against some stiff competition from Burt,” says Feeney, “but I’m not giving him any ground.” Indeed, Feeney already has his eye on the next milestone: commercial space tourism. “We have an eight-person vehicle we want to fly late next year or early in 2006 — and 12 paying passengers might be even better.” Rutan, meanwhile, has designed a stretch version of SpaceShipOne that can accommodate six or more people.

Waiting in the wings is Canadian Arrow in London, Ont. Before yearend, the team hopes to launch its rocket, based on the V-2 designed 60 years ago by Nazi Germany. Canadian Arrow head Geoffrey T. Sheerin, 41, is looking for someone who will cough up $1 million or $2 million “to put a logo the rocket.”

Two other X Prize contenders recently suffered minor setbacks with tests of unmanned rockets. On Aug. 8, the Rubicon, built by Space Transport Corp. in Forks, Wash., dove into the Pacific Ocean shortly after launch. A day earlier, the Black Armadillo rocket, developed by Armadillo Aerospace, climbed to only 600 feet before crashing back to earth. On its Web site, the Mesquite (Tex.) company is now hawking pieces of the wreckage — “Armadillo droppings” — for $125.

So far, Armadillo founder John Carmack has laid out about $1.5 million from the fortune he amassed developing video games such as Doom. “We’ll be flying [another test rocket] in a month or so, but we’re pretty much out of the running for the X Prize,” he admits. Carmack says his long-range goal is to rake in another fortune from space tourism.

Now that Rutan and Allen have shown that suborbital hops are possible for what amounts to pin money at NASA, the roadblock to space tourism isn’t technology. It’s politics. Even if Carmack had a rocket that could whisk tourists into space, he notes, “there is no commercial spaceport in the U.S. licensed for vertical rocket launches from ground level.” Until Congress enacts legislation that clears the way for such launches, his only alternative would be to pay nearly $200,000 per launch to use White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. That would drastically hike ticket prices.

Before Rutan’s feat, says Sheerin of Canadian Arrow, “if you suggested building a space-tourist vehicle, you couldn’t find the capital, because culturally we’ve been taught you can’t do that.” But since June 21, there has been a sea change: “The business community is now starting to look hard at suborbital tourism to make sure they don’t miss an opportunity,” Sheerin says.

That’s just the result that Diamandis envisioned. He grew up with the expectation that his generation would regularly venture into space. Hooked on space since he watched Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 at age 9, he even earned an M.D. in hopes that the credential would help get him on missions as an astronaut. He gave up that ambition, and medicine, when he realized “the government wasn’t going to get us into space routinely,” he recalls.

For that, he says, “we need a mass market — the same kind that gives us low-cost airlines like JetBlue (JBLU ).” The X Prize just might hasten liftoff for affordable, everyday space travel.

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