Headlines > News > Wired.com: Race for Next Space Prize Ignites

Wired.com: Race for Next Space Prize Ignites

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Tue Jan 18, 2005 1:28 pm
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Wired.com By Michael Belfiore: With a mighty roar that could be heard even through the concrete walls of the blockhouse at a rocket-testing facility here, a Space Exploration Technologies rocket engine called Merlin blazed to life Friday. The camera views on the monitors in the control room trembled as the engine shook the ground of the empty Texas plain with 73,000 pounds of thrust — enough power to send a 1,500-pound payload into orbit.

Enough power, that is, if the engine could stay lit for at least 160 seconds. Propulsion engineers watched their displays anxiously for signs of trouble, with test engineer David Yarborough counting out the seconds and test director Jeremy Hollman keeping a hand poised over a red abort switch.

After 162.25 tense seconds, the engine ran out of fuel and shut down without mishap, mission accomplished. It was the first time this feat had been achieved, and the engineers jumped from their chairs to exchange high-fives with test conductor Kent Harris, propulsion chief Tom Mueller and launch manager Tim Buzza. This moment, two years in the making, meant that Merlin was almost ready for its space debut.

The kerosene- and liquid-oxygen-powered Merlin, and Falcon I, the rocket whose first stage it will send into space, are the brainchildren of Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. The 33-year-old South African made a fortune when he sold his last startup, PayPal, to eBay in 2002, and he used some of the $1.5 billion proceeds to found SpaceX in El Segundo, California. The company’s mission: to provide affordable access to space. Friday’s test put SpaceX a big step closer toward realizing that goal. “This essentially marks the completion of our engine development,” Musk told Wired News.

Musk is one of a growing number of wealthy entrepreneurs reaching for the final frontier. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen footed the bill for SpaceShipOne, a suborbital rocket plane that last year won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first manned commercial spacecraft. Richard Branson, Virgin Atlantic’s maverick chairman, plans to enter a fleet of SpaceShipTwos into regular service for suborbital tourist flights in a venture called Virgin Galactic. And Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos is ramping up a suborbital space program of his own called Blue Origin.

With most of the other space entrepreneurs focused on suborbital flight, Musk is closest to the holy grail of manned commercial spaceflight: orbit. Although Falcon I, with its single Merlin engine, will be able to launch only small satellites, five Merlins will be mated to the first stage of the far more powerful Falcon V rocket, perhaps as early as this year. Falcon V, Musk told Wired News, will be able to carry at least five people into low Earth orbit.

Five to orbit is a significant number; it’s the number required to win the next big space prize. America’s Space Prize is a $50 million purse established last year by Las Vegas hotelier and, yes, space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow. Bigelow will award the money to the first U.S. company to build, without government funding, a spaceship that can send five people into orbit twice within 60 days. Bigelow has more than an academic interest in commercial spaceflight; through his Bigelow Aerospace, he’s expanding his real estate empire off-planet with the first commercial space stations. While he can launch his stations on existing unmanned commercial rockets, he needs an orbital passenger vehicle to succeed in his venture.

Musk told Wired News that he intends to win America’s Space Prize, and that he can do it by the Jan. 10, 2010, deadline (that’s when Bigelow wants to open his commercial space station for business). The space prize is right in line with Musk’s business plan. “We hope to be the company that takes people back and forth from Earth to either the International Space Station or to Bigelow’s space station, or to applications we don’t know about today,” said Musk. Ultimately, though, his ambitions extend beyond even orbit. “I think it’s very important that we become a spacefaring civilization, and that we eventually become multiplanetary.”

For now, he and his engineers are “heads down, focused on getting Falcon I right,” for its maiden flight. In March, once the final checkouts are completed — akin, said Musk, to software beta testing — Falcon I will lift a Department of Defense satellite called TacSat-1 into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Also on board will be an aluminum urn made by Houston-based Space Services. About the size of two soda cans stacked together, it will carry ashes from the cremated remains of 125 people from around the world for a “burial in space.”

It was 6:40 p.m. when Merlin shut down after its first full-duration firing, the end of a long, hard day for the engineers. Night had fallen, and all that was visible in the views from the cameras aimed along the engine’s blast radius were grass fires in the fields beyond the Texas test stand. “We friggin’ earned that one,” said Mueller with feeling. “That was a long time coming.”

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