Headlines > News > Dreams-turned-schemes launch one spaceworthy rocket ship

Dreams-turned-schemes launch one spaceworthy rocket ship

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Thu Sep 23, 2004 5:53 am
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By Eli Kintisch: It had all seemed so promising in 1996. Space enthusiast Peter Diamandis and a coterie of St. Louis’ most prominent citizens had stepped forward to announce the X Prize.

They offered $10 million to the first private business that could send an astronaut into space twice within two weeks. NASA endorsed the prize. Actors, authors and astronauts joined the promotional campaign. Local donors signed $25,000 checks as rocket builders got their hands greasy. Diamandis figured the first launch would take place in 2000. And he would be soaring into space himself not long after, fulfilling his childhood dream.

The goal was to demonstrate that anyone could fly into space at affordable prices, to spawn new businesses as Charles Lindbergh had after his Atlantic crossing and to spur man’s migration to space.

But by the turn of the century, the idea was still sitting on the launch pad at the X Prize offices in Chesterfield. Diamandis had raised only half the money for the prize. More worrisome, his organization was in debt by more than $1 million.

Then, in early 2001, Diamandis came up with a scheme. A friend had suggested that he forget about raising the $10 million. Instead, he said, take what money the group had and buy an insurance policy – what amounted to a bet.

The deal would work like a hole-in-one policy for a golf tournament. The X Prize organization would pay a premium upfront, and if someone won, the insurer would provide the $10 million. The insurance company was betting that the X Prize could never be won.

Bermuda-based insurer XL Capital took the wager. The firm required regular payments of $50,000 to $100,000 from Diamandis and a deadline in 2003 for someone to make it to space, a date that later was extended to Jan. 1, 2005.

It was a risky move. The contract with XL stipulated that if Diamandis missed even one premium payment, the deal was off and the firm got to keep whatever had been paid in.

As one deadline after the next approached, Diamandis would scramble for cash, asking each of his board members to reach again for their checkbooks.

“I was feeling a lot of pressure,” Diamandis would recall. “There were numerous times where we were out of money in two or three weeks. I would stop everything I was doing and just focus on raising funds.”

After terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, fund raising became harder still.

But soon after came what might be called a stroke of good fortune. Diamandis picked up the Sept. 17 issue of Fortune magazine and found a story about a woman who had been “talking of her desire to board a civilian-carrying suborbital shuttle.”

Anousheh Ansari “wants to see stars,” Diamandis read in amazement.

Ansari was a 35-year-old electrical engineer who had cashed out of a telecom business for $180 million.

Within two weeks, Diamandis met with Ansari and her family in Dallas. By May 2002, the Ansaris had joined the X Prize board. Six months later, the premiums were all paid and the $10 million was in place. The prize was renamed the Ansari X Prize. No one would say how much the Ansaris ponied up to get their name on the prize, but tax documents show that in 2002, the X Prize organization had raised $2.6 million in contributions. In the previous five years, Diamandis had managed to raise an average of only $379,000 annually.

Pretenders, contenders

Now Diamandis and his organization could focus on the race to space – with a deadline in a scant two years. Over its first six years, the prize had attracted many participants – with wildly varying rocket-building credentials. (”You don’t want to scare off those pesky bicycle mechanics,” Diamandis liked to say.)

There was Gary Hudson, for instance, who at Mojave Airport in California unveiled his Roton Rocket in 1999. He designed it to use helicopter blades to slow the landing on the way down. Hudson boldly predicted a launch by 2000. Instead, he ran out of money for his venture that year, and the company’s assets were seized for back taxes.

Experienced rocket builder Robert Truax, who had built a rocket-powered motorcycle for Evel Knievel, had pursued the prize as well. But when Diamandis visited him in fall 2001, his rocket remained packed in a rented storage locker in San Diego. By then other teams had already fallen away like spent booster rockets, among them Discraft Corp., which had promoted a flying saucer based on “hypersonic waverunner” technology then under study at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Diamandis didn’t want pipe dreams – he needed rocket builders, men and women who knew rocket engines, could raise cash and run a business. Fortunately, he had at least two contenders.

One was Burt Rutan, a renowned aviation pioneer. Another was Jim Akkerman, an engineer whose NASA career had spanned from the Apollo program to the space shuttle.

The two couldn’t have been more different. Akkerman, 67, had been a loyal soldier at the Johnson Space Center for 36 years until he retired in 1999. Rutan, 61, was a leading airplane designer who was turning to space late in life.

Akkerman’s zeal was heaven-sent. Akkerman, a devout Baptist, believed that God intended for him to prepare the world for the Second Coming by bringing a plentiful supply of solar energy to earth.

An engineer by training, Akkerman prepared a study for NASA in the late 1980s promoting methane, instead of hydrogen, as a cheaper, more efficient and easier to use rocket fuel. But managers ignored his proposal. The irrepressible Akkerman and his buddies at Johnson Space Center forged ahead anyway, creating their own company that would showcase the cheap launches. They’d launch a rocket from the Gulf of Mexico and land on the water.

Akkerman sat at his desk and looked for divine inspiration. “We need a name for our company, Lord,” he prayed. The word Advent came to mind and become the name for his system.

If Akkerman was the God-fearing insider, Burt Rutan was the iconoclastic outsider.

Unpredictable and thirsty for attention, he designed fancifully shaped planes for the government and top aerospace firms. He sold plans for high-performance planes that the “little guy,” as he put it, could build in his back yard, using foam blocks, buckets of glue and rolls of fiberglass. His biggest accomplishment was the creation of Voyager, which made the first nonstop, nonrefueled flight around the world in 1986. Two years later, an aerospace firm called Orbital Sciences hired Rutan to help build a new rocket to launch satellites.

By 1996, Rutan had bigger ideas. He wanted to build his own manned spaceship. With funding for Diamandis’ venture in doubt, Rutan was focused on earning a place in the history books, prize or no prize. Five years later, Rutan found a backer in Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Allen shared Rutan’s desire for a place in spaceflight lore. And he gave him more than $20 million to make it happen.

Rocket from spare parts

Akkerman lacked the luxury of a benefactor. His company, Advent Launch Services, created the Civilian Astronauts Corps in 1997, which Akkerman said anyone could join for $2,000. Buy a share, the thinking went, and one day you could choose to fly an Advent rocket – assuming enough people joined to fund construction.

The following year, an early partner in the Advent effort, Harry Dace, announced that the first flights of a ship called the Mayflower were to start on July 4, 1999. Six months before liftoff, without a single arc weld in place, 53 passengers had paid for a ride.

But with time running out, Dace soon began giving the money back.

Undaunted, Akkerman tried other approaches. After retiring from NASA in 1999, he flew to Los Angeles to sell the idea to space shuttle contractor TRW – to no avail.

“You know what?” he told friends. “I’m building this rocket myself.”

He fashioned a rocket nozzle at his home outside Houston, using spare parts and the machine tools he had used long ago to build go-carts.

He foraged for parts at two nearby plants and used one of the facilities to build tanks and a rocket frame. On a sunny June day last year – Friday the 13th, as luck would have it – Akkerman prepared to test fire the 2,600-pound rocket that he had spent about $40,000 to build. Several camera crews recorded the event, and Akkerman said a prayer to himself.

“God says Jesus holds all things together,” Akkerman said, recalling that day. “My main prayer is that he get a good grip.”

As he fired the rocket, the methane engine lighted up with a mighty roar – and then the flames spread up the rocket. The fire reached the two 600-gallon tanks, blew out some rocket parts with a bang and left a charred frame on the launch pad.

Now, a year later, Akkerman has redesigned his methane engine and is hoping to test it this fall.

“We’re real close and looking forward, and up,” he said Monday.

From napkin to reality

It took Rutan five years to design and build the rocket that would come to be known as SpaceShipOne.

Rutan couldn’t put his spacecraft on a huge rocket booster like NASA had done. That was far too expensive. Instead, he would develop a gull-shaped mother ship, called the White Knight, that would carry SpaceShipOne to 50,000 feet. From there, the craft would blast off.

Still, he needed a substantial amount of thrust. Solid rockets, like the ones used in the space shuttle’s boosters, are dangerous. Like Roman candles, they can’t be throttled. Liquid engines are sturdy, but Rutan worried they were too complex. Hybrid engines, with solid and liquid components, are considered safest. But Rutan had a hard time figuring out how to fit all the parts – the nozzle, oxidizer and fuel tanks – into his winged design for SpaceShipOne.

A breakthrough came at an Italian restaurant in Huntsville, Ala., with local rocket guru Tim Pickens. The two sketched it on a napkin. The ship’s wings would wrap elegantly around the nitrous oxidizer tank.

But then how would he bring his ship back down? The descent through the thick atmosphere could tear apart the craft.

The solution: During its return to Earth, his ship would change its entire shape by lifting its tail and folding nearly in half. Like a shuttlecock, the plane would right itself as it careened from space into the air below, slowing at high altitude to avoid the punishing lower air.

Beyond that, Rutan kept his spaceship simple. The pilot would use “nothing but stick and rudder pedals” – the same controls found in a Piper Cub – to fly the craft before the rocket blast and after re-entry. The landing gear would be deployed by springs. Rutan used a device inspired by submarine technology to maintain clean air in the sealed cockpit.

In the end, Rutan had spent under $30 million to build SpaceShipOne, about the cost of one well-equipped corporate jet.

Rutan planned to conduct a final test flight on June 21 before attempting to win the Ansari X Prize. If the test flight succeeded, Rutan would be the first to send a private manned ship into space.

A crowd of 30,000 flocked to Mojave that morning to watch the action. Some packed their families into a car the night before; others flew in from Europe and danced at an impromptu rave before dawn.

With SpaceShipOne tucked under its belly, White Knight took off that morning at 6:47, beginning an hourlong ascent to the atmosphere’s upper reaches for pilot Mike Melvill, 63.

The ship and its ride to high altitude had been tested for months. SpaceShipOne had fired its rocket four times in flight. Rutan, sitting in a single-room mission control with engineers from his firm, Scaled Composites, was confident the ship was ready to reach space.

Once in position, White Knight flight engineer Matt Stinemetz pulled a lever that released the ship into the thin atmosphere. Melvill aimed the nose of the ship upward, pulled a yellow switch on his left to the ready position and fired the rocket.

He was blown back into his seat with four times the force of gravity, but Melvill held on to the stick. A second later, the ship listed left and then right, veering 19 miles south off course.

Engineers on the ground worried that the flaps – called trim – were diverting the ship. “Full nose up trim,” the radio in his ear crackled with muted urgency. A pingpong ball decorated with a smiley face hung taught on its string by Melvill’s head as the ship screamed upward.

The engineers in yellow polo shirts stared intently into monitors dotting the mission control room. The white trail of the rocket 11 miles above was visible through a hole they had cut in the ceiling of the hangar. With the first rocket blast, the altitude gauge on their screens had spun wildly.

Minutes later, as SpaceShipOne would approach 328,000 feet, the official but arbitrary distinction for space, its rate of climb would slow to a relative crawl. Rutan, with Allen sitting behind him, worried the flight wasn’t going to make it.

As the craft headed toward space, Melvill’s voice faded from the airwaves.

“Mike, Mike can you hear us, Mike?” Diamandis heard over a radio along the runway.

Oh my god, Diamandis remembered thinking, would they not make the altitude? Is there something terribly wrong? Did we lose the ship? Did we lose Mike?

Reporter Eli Kintisch
E-mail: ekintisch@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8250

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