Headlines > News > X-Prize Long Shots Still in Play

X-Prize Long Shots Still in Play

Published by Robin on Sat Sep 4, 2004 1:09 pm
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By Dan Brekke, Wired 02:00 AM Sep. 04, 2004 PT

For the small pack chasing the leaders in the $10 million Ansari X Prize space race, offered to the first team that can fly a three-person ship to an altitude of 100 kilometers twice within two weeks, the contest is over, done with, finished. Unless it’s not.

Nearly everyone involved in the X Prize contest agrees that SpaceShipOne, a project led by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has the inside track to win the jackpot. Rutan’s group, based in Mojave, California, is scheduled to make its first prize launch on Sept. 29. A second team, the Toronto-based da Vinci Project, says it will make its first flight Oct. 2 from western Saskatchewan.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous to think that anyone other than Burt Rutan at this point can make it,” said John Carmack, video-game pioneer and leader of the Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace team.

Despite seeing two teams on the starting line, though, not everyone agrees with Carmack that the race is over for others.

A Canadian team that’s designed an updated version of Germany’s World War II V-2 rocket says it will try to be ready to launch if anything goes wrong with Rutan’s attempts. And a pair of 26-year-old rocket engineers working on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula insist their chances are “very good” to launch someone into space before the end of the year, too.

The $10 million prize offer expires Dec. 31. Most of the field — including other teams from the United States and Canada as well as squads from Argentina, Britain, Israel, Romania and Russia — have only gotten to the preliminary design and testing stage. Even before Rutan’s SpaceShipOne emerged as the front-runner with a one-man flight to 100 kilometers in June, perhaps half a dozen teams were seen as having a chance of even attempting a prize launch.

Now, with Armadillo Aeorospace’s Carmack conceding the X Prize is beyond reach, the field of hopefuls beyond Rutan and the da Vinci Project appears to be down to two: Canadian Arrow, based in London, Ontario, and Space Transport of Forks, Washington.

“We’re working as fast as we can,” said Canadian Arrow founder and team leader Geoff Sheerin. Three weeks ago, the team conducted a successful drop test of its crew capsules in Lake Ontario. The next step will involve tests of Arrow’s escape tower, designed to pull the capsule clear of the rocket’s liquid-fueled main stage in case the mission needs to be aborted.

“Once we know the escape system works at all different ranges, then we start having discussions: ‘Should human beings go on board or should they not?’” Sheerin said. “Those should be interesting, because I have an engineering group that will want nobody to go on board until they do one more test and an astronaut group that desperately wants to get on board.”

Sheerin won’t put a date on the escape-tower tests, noting that the cabin drop test took place three weeks later than planned. But he said Canadian Arrow, which entered the X Prize race in 2001, would be next to fly if the scheduled attempts fail. If wintry weather became a factor at his preferred Great Lakes launch sites, Sheerin said the team could try a flight from the U.S. Gulf Coast.

“We figured Canadians might forgive us for running south to go and capture that prize,” he said.

Eric Meier and Phillip Storm, who founded Washington state’s Space Transport in 2002, also say they can launch a manned flight this year despite the crash of their last test rocket, called Rubicon 1, in early August.

“I think our chances are very good,” said Meier earlier this week. At the moment, he and Storm say the effort faces three big challenges: getting a Federal Aviation Administration launch license, developing the vehicle and raising cash to support their work. In addition, the team is building its own centrifuge for screening and training possible Space Transport astronauts.

Meier and Storm say the failure of Rubicon 1 was actually a blessing. The rocket was supposed to make a supersonic flight to 20,000 feet. Instead it experienced engine and control problems, veered from its launch site on private property near the Pacific Ocean, and crashed just offshore. News coverage generated not only lots of investor queries but actual cash.

The pair had raised just over $200,000 of a planned $420,000 X Prize budget before Rubicon 1 went down. Since the mishap, more than $30,000 more has come in, and Storm said one investor is considering funding the balance of the project’s budget.

But with all that remains to be done — so far, all Space Transport has managed to do is crash a dismembered mannequin on a desolate beach — is it really feasible to fly a manned ship before the end of the year?

Meier insists the answer is yes.

“You should be amazed no one has done it yet,” he said, adding, “I think Phil and I are exceptional action people. We can get out there and make things happen.”

But Carmack, who said he has spent about $1.5 million developing a manned suborbital ship, is adamant that there’s “zero chance” of anyone but Rutan winning the prize. And he includes the only other team with a launch date, the GoldenPalace/da Vinci Project, in his assessment.

“As somebody that builds something,” Carmack said, “the chance of (da Vinci) taking a rocket that’s never been tested — they started before we did and they have flown nothing, not a subscale vehicle, not a model, haven’t even put a balloon in the air, absolutely nothing — the idea they’re going to go from nothing to a full suborbital space vehicle, it’s just silly.”

Carmack said Armadillo Aerospace faced a couple of huge challenges long before it crashed one of its development vehicles, a 48-inch-diameter peroxide-fueled rocket designed for supersonic, mid-altitude test flights, was destroyed in an early August crash.

First, Armadillo was grounded for a year because it was unable to get the high-concentration peroxide it needed.

Second, the team has yet to receive an FAA launch license and was approved to conduct tests only at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range. But Carmack said that even though the site is remote, he would have “coughed up” the $1.5 million needed to launch from the base if Armadillo had had a vehicle ready to fly.

Now, with the X Prize chase out of the way, Carmack says Armadillo will return to a slower development process to develop its suborbital vehicle. The ship, called Black Armadillo, is designed to launch from the ground, blast into low space, then return to Earth and land on its tail. Carmack says there’s no firm date for a launch, though further tests of its scale vehicles could take place as early as October.

Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/space/0,2697,64835,00.html

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