Canadian rocket man ready for lift off in Do-It-Yourself space race
TORONTO (AFP) Apr 07, 2004
It would be one small step for mankind -- but one giant leap for Canada.

A Canadian crew has selected a launch date as it battles 27 other teams from around the world in a do-it-yourself race to blast a man into space, in a quest for a 10 million US dollar (8.3 million euros) bounty designed to spur space tourism.

This race for the stars seemed the stuff of fantasy when it was announced eight years ago, but organisers are betting that one of the teams will scoop the prize this year.

Intrepid Canadian computer designer turned astronaut Brian Feeney plans to strap into his red 4.88-metre (16-foot) Wildfire rocket later this year and soar to a height of 24,000 meters (80,000 feet) hitched to the world's largest helium balloon.

Once in position, he will fire his craft's twin engines, which guzzle a cocktail of kerosene and liquid oxygen, and blast into stratospheric sub-orbit, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) above Earth.

After a perilous five-minute space flight, Feeney then hopes to float back to terrafirma by parachute.

"We are going for it, it's getting exciting," Feeney told AFP, looking forward to his risky flight, from his Toronto headquarters.

Feeney's team, the da Vinci project, is battling for the 10 million dollars put up by the St. Louis, Missouri-based X Prize Foundation, to be the first private non-governmental group to send a manned reusable capsule into space twice within two weeks.

The non-profit foundation wanted to recreate the contest which spurred Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in pursuit of the 25,000 dollar Orteig prize in 1927.

Their goal was to promote space tourism and break the stranglehold governments have exerted on manned space flight.

The race is shaping up as a neck-and-neck struggle between Wildfire and US aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, whose reusable rocket SpaceShipOne is being put through its paces high above California's Mojave desert prior to a launch.

Rutan is best known for his Voyager aircraft, which circled the earth without refuelling in 1986.

"It's turning into a David and Goliath" race, said Feeney, alluding to the piles of cash of tap for Rutan's project, courtesy of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. Wildfire's flight is being backed by a host of smaller sponsors, including Sun Microsystems.

"After eight years, it's coming down to a photo finish," he said, though he added "thousands of things have to work" for both teams to succeed.

Where Wildfire uses a helium balloon to reach the edge of space, SpaceShipOne piggybacks on a high altitude turbojet plane dubbed "White Knight."

The rationale behind both designs is that it is not commercially viable, nor technologically sensible to try to blast a rocket bred in a small space program from Earth directly into space.

Feeney is no doubt hoping he will never have to utter the words "Saskatchewan, we have a problem."

Whereas the United States has its famed mission control site in Houston, and launchsite at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Feeney will blast into space from a remote site in Canada's western Saskatchewan province.

A date for his first flight is expected to be named later this month, possibly at a meeting of the open wheel Champ Car racing series in California.

Champ Car recently signed up as presenting sponsor to the contest.

In all, 27 teams are vyeing for the 10 million dollar prize, from Argentina, Canada, Israel, Romania, Russia, Britain and the United States.

Another Canadian entry has conducted engine tests on its rocket, Canadian Arrow, but is not thought to be as close to liftoff as Wildfire.