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Rockets Of The Countdown

Published by Robin on Sat Oct 8, 2005 5:50 am
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By Aero-News Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. “Hognose” O’Brien

One of the coolest things about the original X-Prize was the sheer breadth of innovation it spawned, the colorful variety of responses people had to the challenge of a reusable suborbital space vehicle. Many commentators noted the unconventionality of the ultimate winner, the SpaceShipOne/White Knight combination, which resembled the Mercury/Maya combination of a bygone day in concept, but added a bunch of new wrinkles, most importantly “shuttlecock recovery” or as Burt Rutan calls it, “carefree reentry.” (By the way, the idea came to Burt as he woke in the middle of the night).

But the other contestants were, generally, just as interesting. There were the Canadians who started with a known quantity — the German V-2, first flown in 1942, and never conceived as a man-rated, let alone recoverable, vehicle. Practically speaking, it was a round of artillery ammunition with a dreadfully long range — so the project of turning that disposable weapon into a reusable space transport was (and is) fascinating.

There was John Carmack’s Armadillo Aerospace, which team had solved a lot of problems in vertical take-off and landing, and Brian Feeney’s da Vinci Project. There were spaceplanes, and staged rockets and single-stage rockets, and they landed on runways and fields and lakes, and their designers were Britons and Romanians and Argentines, and all in all it was a quite remarkable range of people and concepts.

What a shame it was that the Prize would be won and all the other technology left by the wayside!

But, as it happened, nothing was left by the wayside at all. Even before the first X-Prize flight had been scheduled, the X-Prize Foundation was working on the concept of an annual competition, a gymkhana of space flight, and that became the X-Prize Cup. Rich prizes — and exposure to the entrepreneurs of private spaceflight — guarantee that we’ll continue to have an array of able designers and innovative designs. And — not coincidentally — many of the original X-Prize contenders are still hanging in there as Cup competitors.

The first X-Prize Cup competition will take place next year, but this year, a preliminary event, “Countdown to the X-Prize Cup,” will be stirring hearts, rattling brain-cases, and inducing spontaneous grins. There will be a Space Expo, and that means, of course, that some of the most interesting rocket teams will be there. This is an incomplete list of who’s there and what they’re doing; we’ll start with the action guys and then move into the static displays (and many teams that are not displaying are still coming to participate in panels, etc).

Armadillo Aerospace: Flying (VTOL demonstrator)
Armadillo Aerospace will be flying their latest demonstrator. This is the new LOX version. It’s expected to fly two programs: one of several short (15 second) hover flights, and one of controlled flight to 200 ft. AGL and return for a safe landing. This demonstrates the controllability of Armadillo’s engine as well as its high-tech stability and control capabilities.

Golden Palace/Da Vinci Project: Flying (Capsule Drop/Recovery)
The space capsule developed by Brian Feeney’s Da Vinci Project will be lifted to 10,000 ft. AGL by a helicopter (weather permitting), and dropped, demonstrating the recovery technology Da Vinci has developed, a precise sequence of freefall, drogues, chutes, and airbags.
There will also be a capsule on static display.

Starchaser Industries PLC: Rocket Demonstration
Starchaser will be firing their 7,000 lb thrust engine (some of the information says it’s 5,000 lbst. We’ll try to clear this up). They’ll also have the Thunderstar capsule on static display. The Thunderstar Capsule is the people-carrying component of a 2-stage plus-escape-gantry stack. Starchaser has developed their own rocket engines as well as rockets; the first stage is powered by two 30,000 lbst Churchill Mk III engines.
Starchaser is based in Manchester, England, but has just acquired offices in New Mexico this year. It is a privately held company.

XCOR Aerospace: Flying (EZ-Rocket)
XCOR’s EZ-Rocket, the forerunner of the Rocket Racing League’s upcoming Mark I racers, will fly. There was initial information that Rick Searfoss would attempt to break a world record with the rocket plane; that no longer appears in press materials for the EZ-Rocket. The EZ-Rocket is important as a demonstrator of XCOR’s safe, reliable engine technology, and also as a teaser for the upcoming Rocket Racing League. The EZ-Rocket last flew for the public in 2002.

There are many interesting facts about XCOR, too many to print, but here’s one: while people often refer to them as X-Prize competitors, XCOR never had an entry in the contest. XCOR’s Jeff Greason told Aero-News last year that they cheerfully would have built a spacecraft for the contest if someone had contracted them to do so, but no one did.

Tripoli Rocketry Association: Flying (Amateur Rockets)
Along with these new-technology manned spaceflight demonstrations, the venerable fraternity of amateur rocketry, in the form of the Tripoli Rocketry Association, will do their thing. Tripoli is made up of almost 4,000 amateur rocketeers, organized into local clubs or “prefectures.” Tripoli members’ rockets fall in size and performance between the “model rockets” most of us know, and the professional sounding rockets that are used by science and industry. Which means, they make quite a spectacle! One of the Tripoli launches is intended reach 35,000 feet AGL.

Unfortunately this middle ground of amateur rocketry has been under attack by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has declared the ammonium perchlorate composite component used in solid model rocket engines an “explosive”; Tripoli and another association, the National Association of Rocketry, are fighting this in court; if they lose, you may not be able to see a launch like this again.

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