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Exclusive: The Space Race - Part Two

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Fri Apr 6, 2007 7:04 pm
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As you can read in the first part, the original Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States was a fierce competition between the two states, that produced some impressive results like landing on the moon. In the last years three new Space Races began to emerge:

The first one was the commercialisation of space, first mainly for advertisement purposes, later for tourism. One central figure there is the X-Prize. The second New Space Race is the privatisation of launch systems. There, companies like Kistler Aerospace or SpaceX play a major role. And finally, the third New Space Race, is a race that is on the cusp of becoming a new competition between states. China plays a major role in this competition but there is also a re-emerging Russia and other emerging countries, and naturally the only remaining superpower, the United States.

In this part we will take a look on the commercialisation of space. It all began with the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of her successor states.

In 1996 a Pepsi brand logo was presented on the space station Mir in order to launch a new advertising campaign. Three years later the Pizza Hut corporate logo decorated the side of a Proton rocket. Compared to the current situation, this was only marginal, but it was a start. The first private-paid cosmonaut already visited the space station Mir in 1990. It was the Japanese photographer Akiyami. Perhaps because he was not really suited for space flight as he wasn’t fit and was a chain smoker, it took another 11 years until the next space “tourist” flew to the a space station.

It was the American Dennis Tito, an engineer, who paid $20 millions (some say $12 millions) for the 8-day flight to the International Space Station (ISS). The public interest and partly upraw was very high. Mainly the US officials saw this flight with great concern. They didn’t want to have an, in their view, “outsider” to endanger their space station as if Tito would have floated right to the next airlock and would have said: “Oh, let’s see what’s behind that door..”.

In parallel to this development, until today several more space “tourists” flew, a few people got attention to this development and created the X-Prize Foundation in 1995. They announced a competition, the X-Prize, to boost private, commercial space flight. The winner would be, who would be the first to build a craft without governmental help and money and put that up to 100 kilometers with 3 people onboard and return safely to the Earth. To hamper things a bit, the flight had to be repeated within one week and the craft had to be mainly reusable. The winner of this competition that was to be running until the end of 2004, would get $10 millions.

On the first look one may think that this was an absurd competition, but it was not the first time, that something like that was tried. Between 1905 and 1935 numerous such competitions were held in order to stimulate the aircraft industry. The perhaps best known one was the Orteig-Price, which finally was won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 with his transatlantic nonstop flight. This price was endowed with $25.000. Today, the whole aircraft industry has a volume of about $250 billions.

So it didn’t take long until the first teams enlisted for the X-Prize. With no money and concepts that made little (if any) engineering sense, some of them could almost be called mad. In the first years the goal seemed unachievable and so the X-Prize remained in the shadow for the public perception. In 1998 it was announced that 5 of the 10 million prize money were collected through donations. In this year, the later winner team around Burt Rutan, started to think about participating in the competition and began to make first calculations in their cubbyhole.

For the ones who don’t know Burt Rutan, let’s take a short excursion. He started as an engineer at NASA, but began to develop and build his own airplanes in 1974 in his garage, the so called Kit-Planes. These were exceptional designs and only suited for one person but they were cheap to build. He offered the engineering drawings and blue prints for sale so that everyone could build his own plane at home. The trick was that Rutan didn’t use high end materials (like titanium and tungsten), that are extremely expensive and often completely unavailable for civilian use, but instead used Carbon-Fiber Reinforced Plastics (CFRP). In 1982 Burt Rutan, together with his brother Dick, created his own company, Scaled Composites, a company for experimental planes with their motto that they only have a clue about using composites.

They developed experimental crafts for excentric millionnaires as well as for other companies and the military. Quite impressive is their record: Since Burt Rutan started in 1974 to build aircrafts, he managed to fly at least one new design every single year. He maintained this record until today. He is also known for his exceptional and exotic constructions. One of the most beautiful planes took off already in 1983, only one year after the creation of Scaled Composites. You can see a few pictures of the “Starship”, the Beech Model 2000 Starship, here.

For the general public Scaled got known in 1985 when they presented the Voyager, a plane to encircle the Earth nonstop. Scaled’s constructions were always unusual but very efficient.

Back to the X-Prize: In 2000, Scaled Composites finally announced their participation in the X-Prize competition. At the latest then, the X-Prize got more attention as Scaled always delivered their crafts without problems and in time. But as it was their corporate philosophy Scaled Composites gave no further information. So the time passed and the deadline of 2004 got nearer and nearer. In 2002 not few gloomily predicted that the X-Prize couldn’t be won. But then came 2003 and Scaled Composites went public.

They presented their own, private manned space flight program. A simple as ingenious concept: based on the idea of earlier experimental rocket planes, like the X-15, Scaled’s “SpaceShipOne” should be carried under a carrier plane up to 15 kilometers and then released. There the space ship should fire its own hybrid rocket engine and fly up to 100 kilometers and then return in free flight to the air port like a glider. The engine was described a bit sloppy as powered by rubber and laughing gas as it used a solid propellant a bit similar to rubber and a liquid oxidizer, basically laughing gas.

To withstand the high temperatures on re-entry, the “SpaceShipOne” used an ingenious trick: The so-called “Feather-Mode”. After passing the highest point in its trajectory, the space ship folded its wings 90 degrees up, so that the craft wouldn’t dive with its nose ahead, and therefore high speeds, into the atmosphere but with its broad belly first.

Shortly after the presentation of this concept, the financier was announced, Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft. In the same year, the carrier plane, the “White Knight”, had its maiden launch. Then we got to 2004, the final year of the X-Prize. Several teams with solid concepts and budgets became apparent, which got admitted chances to win the X-Prize, now called the Ansari X-Prize after the family name of a large donator. The team besides Scaled Composites, that were also seen as a favorite, were the Canadian Arrow team with an also very unconventional concept. A rocket should be carried onboard a huge helium balloon up the atmosphere similar like Scaled’s carrier plane concept. The rocket should then be released and fire its engine and fly up to the magical 100 kilometers. But unlike Scaled, none of the other competitors had any testing of their flight hardware. Scaled on the other side flew their “White Knight” regularly and since the end of 2003, first flight tests were also conducted with the “SpaceShipOne”. First captive-carry tests with “White Knight”, later unpowered glide tests and finally powered by its own rocket engine.

In June, 2004 it was showtime. The first flight to 100 kilometers. 100 kilometers was so meaningful because it was internationally defined that the outer space started above 100 kilometers. Tens of thousands pilgered into the Mojave desert, to see the spectacle. There were a few minor problems in that flight, but nothing out of the ordinary with an experimental craft.

The X-Prize finally was won on October 4, 2004. After a first flight on September 29 with Mike Melvill on the controls, Brian Binnie flew this time the “SpaceShipOne” and beat even the old X-15 height record. More important than the live broadcast of these events and the view of the “Black Sky” was the announcement of British billionaire Richard Branson: He created a new company, Virgin Galactic, and was to offer flights onboard crafts similar to “SpaceShipOne” and developed by Burt Rutan, starting in 2008 for a, compared to earlier days, dumping prize of $200.000 per seat.

In this hype the American billionaire Robert Bigelow announced a new prize, “America’s Space Prize”, a competition running until 2010 and endowed with $50 millions. The winner has to fly a craft with 3 people onboard without governmental funding into an orbit and repeat the whole thing within 60 days.

Read more on the recent developments in the commercial space flight in the upcoming third part of the Space Race.

Feel free to discuss this article in the forum…

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