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Wired News: Bureaucracy Pins Rocket to Earth

Published by Robin on Fri Aug 27, 2004 2:32 pm
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By Dan Brekke, Wired News, 02:00 AM Aug. 27, 2004 PT

It’s got a rocket, an astronaut and a small prairie town anxious to become a spaceport. But a Canadian team competing for the $10 million Ansari X Prize, an international contest promoting a new generation of privately developed spacecraft, still doesn’t have a couple of precious pieces of paper it needs to get to space.

The Toronto-based da Vinci Project announced earlier this month that it plans to launch its Wild Fire rocket from Kindersley, Saskatchewan, on Oct. 2.

The volunteer team, sponsored by online casino GoldenPalace.com, is dueling Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne team, which has already reached space once and has scheduled the first of two required X Prize flights for Sept. 29.

Under the X Prize rules, the teams must fly privately financed reusable vehicles to an altitude of 100 kilometers (62.5 miles) twice within two weeks. In addition to a pilot, the suborbital flights must carry two passengers or their equivalent weight and volume.

But the Canadian government has yet to approve da Vinci’s flight. The hang-up is the project’s lack of an insurance policy to cover potential injuries and property damage from the flight.

Brian Feeney, da Vinci’s leader, spokesman and astronaut, said earlier this month the team has been shopping for a policy — to cover CN$10 million to CN$20 million in liability — for some time.

“We’re still looking, because it’s a little pricey,” Feeney said. He declined to say how much such a policy might cost. But the leader of another X Prize team, Geoff Sheerin of Canadian Arrow, said his group has received quotes ranging from CN$250,000 to CN$1.5 million for about CN$5 million in launch-liability coverage.

Beyond insurance, Feeney said his team still needs to file a document indemnifying the Canadian government against launch damages.

Lucie Vignola, a spokeswoman with Transport Canada in Ottawa, said da Vinci’s launch application is incomplete without the indemnification and insurance policy in place. She said her agency’s Launch Safety Office won’t formally consider the application until all the paperwork is in, and added that there’s no guarantee that process will be completed by da Vinci’s declared Oct. 2 launch date.

“It gets to the point where, quite honestly, to evaluate the whole proposal we’re going to take our time, because we’re not compromising on the safety of the public or of property,” Vignola said.

As Feeney’s team continues its hunt for launch insurance, it’s also embarking on a new round of launch hardware testing amid skepticism about whether its ship is safe, or ready, to fly.

Da Vinci’s plan calls for an immense helium balloon to carry Wild Fire to an altitude of 70,000 to 80,000 feet, where its engines will be fired for its parabolic ride across the threshold of space. The craft’s rocket body and its detachable, spherical crew capsule are designed to parachute back to Earth.

Questions — first in online discussions and more recently in the media — have focused on whether the da Vinci team has carried out adequate testing of what’s sure to be a complex, risky task.

Professor Ted Llewellyn, a space and atmospheric scientist at the University of Saskatchewan, heated up the discussion last week when he warned “the city of Saskatoon is within bombing range” if the Wild Fire launch goes awry.

Llewellyn says his concern centers on the scale of the da Vinci launch and the lack of evidence that the system has been adequately tested.

“They’re trying to launch 8,000 pounds of payload, which is what this rocket and fuel weigh, from the ground on a balloon, and that is not an easy task,” Llewellyn said. “I’ve been associated with a large number of balloon launches with payloads up to 2,000 pounds, and I know that’s one hell of a problem.”

At a minimum, he said, a launch on the scale of Wild Fire should include extensive rocket test-firings to ensure the vehicle’s engine “performs exactly the way you expect it to.” He said he would also expect to do a test balloon launch with a full-size payload.

The da Vinci Project has scheduled a series of rocket and balloon tests over the next several weeks. Feeney said the team will conduct “many” rocket-engine firings in Ontario through the end of September. And on Sept. 4, he said, the project will launch a balloon with a 400-pound payload to an altitude of 50,000 feet somewhere in the United States.

“Everyone’s various comments of late are, ‘Is the balloon going to rip? How is it going to perform with such a hard payload on it?’” Feeney said. “Larger payloads have gone to higher altitudes, I keep telling everybody.”

Despite the fact the weight launched in the test is a small fraction of the Wild Fire system weight, Feeney emphasized “the stress is exactly what the larger balloon will get … this will emulate the stresses that the large balloon will see.”

Feeney said the round of last-minute testing will not affect his group’s plan for an early October launch.

By Dan Brekke, Wired News, 02:00 AM Aug. 27, 2004 PT

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