Headlines > News > X Prize rivals going through testing time

X Prize rivals going through testing time

Published by Cathleen Manville on Sat Aug 14, 2004 2:50 pm
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TheStar.com: By Scott Simmie

“Roger … we have a `Go’ for launch.”
“The name’s not Roger. But, hey — for 10 million bucks? Sure, go for launch. T-minus three, two —”

Oops.

Over the past week, two competitors in the $10 million (U.S.) Ansari X Prize have made test flights of their fledgling rockets. Make that test crashes.

Last Sunday, the rocket Rubicon 1 failed when one of the craft’s motors exploded just seconds into its maiden flight. The 7.3-metre craft, carrying a mannequin, turned into a dazzling $24,000 firework off the Washington state coastline. Debris, including the dummy’s head, rained down on the beach. Splat.

“The occupant was decapitated,” a volunteer deadpanned to the Seattle Times as he recovered the pilot’s head.

In the other no-less-spectacular mishap, a rocket built by Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace got off to a flying start. The $35,000 vehicle, financed by videogame programmer John Carmack (who made his fortune with the game Doom), went up, up, up, to a height of about 200 metres.

Then, due to an unanticipated fuel problem and the apparently humourless law of gravity, it came down, down, down. Splat.

“It’s a good thing Doom 3 is selling very well,” quipped Carmack on the Armadillo website. (The company is now hawking bits and pieces of the wreckage online as “Armadillo Droppings” at $125 a crack.) Click here and scroll all the way down to purchase your Armadillo Droppings today.

Today, in the latest significant test, one of the two Canadian entries in the race plans to drop its spacecraft crew cabin from a helicopter 3,000 metres above Lake Ontario. The unmanned (and un-womanned) capsule was scheduled to parachute to a splashdown just south of Centre Island shortly after 9 a.m. (So don’t swim there.)

“Safety is very important for us,” Geoff Sheerin, team leader of the London-based Canadian Arrow, said yesterday. “The only way we’re going to allow our astronaut group on board is after the escape and recovery systems are proven out.”

Test, test, test again. For many in the rocket-building business, it’s a mantra. And this week’s crashes are, in a twisted way, good things. NASA, after all, blew up a fistful of rockets in the early days before it ever risked putting a human in one.

“It’s not the stuff you know about (that causes problems). It’s the things you think you know about, but you don’t,” said Sheerin.

“If you look at every failure, that’s what happens.”

The leading X Prize contender, Scaled Composites, has had the resources to be ultra-cautious. It started flights late last year that have gradually tested the limits of SpaceShipOne, the craft that will make its first attempt for the prize on Sept. 29 in Mojave, Calif. Designer Burt Rutan calls the approach “envelope expansion.”

With $10 million to be won by the first team to send a manned, reusable vehicle to a height of 100 kilometres twice within two weeks, however, there’s a powerful incentive to push that envelope to its very edge.

The Toronto-based da Vinci Project, which has announced an Oct. 2 launch date over Kindersley, Sask., has not publicly revealed its test flight plans. But team leader Brian Feeney has previously stated that, after thoroughly testing all component systems, the X Prize flight he’ll pilot might be Wild Fire’s maiden voyage.

Would climbing in a rocket and just pressing “Go” be a wise thing to do? Feeney stresses that is not his plan, but this week there were plenty of online opinions from those who believe it is:

“It seems to me that the Wild Fire crew launching this early, without any real tests of their hardware, is making a foolish decision,” one person posted on http://www.slashdot.org, a site that bills itself as “news for nerds.”

“Attempting two space launches in an untested vehicle in an attempt to purse-snatch from a crew who’s already flown their ship to the edge of space is only a good decision if your crew-return strategy involves a lot of scraping a smouldering crater with a stick and a spoon.” Yuck.

The da Vinci Project has spent countless hours doing simulations, including complex computational fluid dynamics and finite element analysis, which help predict how objects will perform under stress in the real world. But, say armchair critics, that can’t top real-world testing.

A da Vinci volunteer, posting as “Anonymous Coward,” came to the team’s defence:

“Contrary to what I’ve been reading today, we will be doing lots of component/subsystem level testing. The amount of integrated end-to-end testing will likely be limited simply due to time. This does NOT mean that the rocket will be fundamentally unsafe. There will be no launch unless it’s determined that the pilot has a very high chance of survival.”

That pilot, Feeney himself, says he will not publicly reveal what tests for the Wild Fire Mk VI are planned. But he emphasizes that the first priority of this mission is safety.

“It’s absolutely the top priority,” he said yesterday.

“The whole project’s based around losing the mission but not losing the hardware, not losing the person on board or people. We can lose a mission and we might not be successful with something. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have both hardware and people to fly (again).”

There can be little doubt the X Prize has already achieved one of its goals. It’s got people excited about the potential for affordable, accessible space flight.

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