Headlines > News > Space race warming up -- in Northwest

Space race warming up -- in Northwest

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Tue Sep 28, 2004 9:25 pm
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Allen-financed rocket-plane not the only game in town
The Seattle area is known for its software, airplanes, rainfall and lattes, but it may someday be recognized as well for its contributions in the private race to space — by rocket, a rocket-plane combo or maybe even an elevator.

One critical leg in this race, the $10 million challenge known as the Ansari X Prize, is expected to take place tomorrow high above California’s Mojave Desert.
A unique rocket-plane built by aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and paid for by Seattle billionaire Paul Allen will again seek to reach beyond the boundary where space is defined as starting — at 100 kilometers, or about 62.5 miles, above the planet’s surface.

Nobody else appears close to launching any meaningful competition against the Rutan-Allen craft dubbed SpaceShipOne, which in June became the first privately manned vehicle to reach suborbital space.
But Allen is by no means the only local player in the private space race.
“I don’t think the public recognizes how much is going on here,” said George Mueller, president of Kirkland-based Kistler Aerospace — a company that has spent years trying to bring a reusable rocket to market.

“There’s an amazing amount of activity here,” Mueller said.
He noted that Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.com, is also reputedly in the local rocket business. Last year, a story in Newsweek magazine reported that Bezos had formed a Seattle company called Blue Origin to build rockets for space tourism.

An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment on Blue Origin. So far, Bezos has revealed little about what he’s doing.
Mueller, who in the 1960s was chief of NASA’s manned space program, said Seattle appears poised to play a leading role in this new era of private spaceflight — if it does happen.

“It all really does depend mostly upon getting the costs down,” he said.
He noted that Kistler, even though it has completed 80 percent of its work developing a reusable rocket, has been in bankruptcy reorganization for the past few years.

Too many people invested too much money in the hope of a rapid expansion in a new era of satellite telecommunications, Mueller said. Space tourism will be even harder to expand, he said, because of the higher safety thresholds.

Still, Mueller said he does believe SpaceShipOne and the X Prize represent a “watershed” shift in the direction of private spaceflight.

“The big question is really just whether or not they can make it cheap enough,” Mueller said.

The X Prize requires two flights within two weeks’ time to win the prize. Rutan and Allen hope to follow tomorrow’s planned flight with another next week.

But two other local competitors who are nearly certain to suffer defeat in this contest are optimistic about their chances in the broader race to gain a foothold in the private space industry of the near future.

“We’re certainly not giving up,” said Phil Storm, half of Space Transport Corp. Inc., a long-shot X Prize contender in Forks.

“We keep on ticking,” added Storm’s partner, Eric Meier. “We learn something useful from every launch.”

The two-man firm is one of 24 competitors listed by the Ansari X Prize Foundation of St. Louis. It is also one of only a handful to have actually launched anything. Storm and Meier are bona fide rocket scientists with previous experience working on spacecraft at Redmond-based Aerojet Corp.

But the Forks team’s latest unmanned rocket tests have ended in explosions, because of a fuel mixture problem, putting a damper on their plans to launch a manned rocket in time to compete with SpaceShipOne.

The reason many of the X Prize competitors are still forging ahead despite the heavy odds that SpaceShipOne will win this race is because most see the contest as a first step toward a much bigger prize.

“Oddly enough, we received a significant amount of support from new investors after the rocket exploded,” noted Storm. “Our goal isn’t so much to win the X Prize as it is to create a system that can simply and inexpensively get people into space.”

That’s exactly what the contest was designed to promote, said Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles Lindbergh and board member with the X Prize Foundation.

“Most of the teams are doing this not because they think they’ll win the prize but because they think there’s a business in this,” said Lindbergh, an artist, pilot and furniture maker who grew up in Kitsap County.

“Space tourism is going to happen soon,” he said.

Lindbergh noted that people are already paying to take zero gravity flights in planes at about 40,000 feet, and said suborbital tourist flights will likely be next.

“Things have changed and people now recognize there is a chance to make a lot of money in space,” agreed Michael Laine, president and founder of Liftport Inc., a Bremerton-based company dedicated to building an elevator that can take people or cargo into space.

The concept of a space elevator may sound far-fetched, but new technologies — such as extremely strong, lightweight materials — have moved the idea from the realm of science fiction to serious experimentation.

“Three years ago, people thought we were nuts,” Laine said. Now, he said, scientists at NASA, MIT and other top-notch research institutions are taking a hard look at it.

One motivation is the potential cost difference of taking a payload — be it humans or satellites — between today’s commercial rockets and a space elevator. Liftport estimates it can get today’s cost of about $20,000 per pound of payload down to about $400 per pound. The company has built a prototype “climber” robot it plans to test soon.

The biggest barrier to privatizing space isn’t technological, Laine said, as much as financial.

But the costs are rapidly coming down, he said, to the point where the final frontier is starting to look pretty attractive to farsighted business people.

“Most people don’t have someone like Paul Allen backing them and so it takes some courage to try these things,” Laine said. “I love what those guys in Forks are doing. Sure they’ve had failures. We’ll blunder as well. But this is happening.”

And a lot of it is happening in Seattle.

P-I reporter Tom Paulson can be reached at 206-448-8318 or tompaulson@seattlepi.com

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