Cape Canaveral FL (UPI) Aug 17, 2004
The birth of the space age was not an easy delivery. US and Russian archives are filled with stories, pictures and grainy videos of rocketry gone awry. As the next generation of rocketeers steps into the limelight cast by a $10 million competition, it is finding some things never change.
Last week, two teams working to develop profitable tourist space transit systems found their dreams spiral farther into the future. The signs were not subtle.
In Washington state, just south of Olympic National Park, a 23-foot-long, 38-inch-diameter booster known as Rubicon 1 blasted off for what was expected to be supersonic test flight 20,000 feet above the ground. Instead, Space Transport Corp., of Forks, Wash., got a gut-wrenching lesson on the importance of parachutes.
According to the company's launch report, one of Rubicon's solid propellant engines over-pressurized and exploded, damaging the rest of the engine assembly.
The passenger capsule, which held three dummies, and the rocket's nose cone separated from the engine compartment and somersaulted toward the ocean. The command to deploy the parachute did not reach the capsule in time for a successful emergency landing.
Suffice it to say that among the debris was a decapitated dummy head.
Team leaders Phillip Storm and Eric Meier are taking the loss with a hefty dose of optimism.
The cost of replacing the vehicle is puny compared to the valuable expertise gained in designing, building and launching the vehicle, they wrote on the company's Web site.
They also are taking advantage of the free publicity to press for money. Storm and Meier need $22,000 for Rubicon's next incarnation, the Rubicon 2.
Space Transport is a long shot in a race that promises $10 million to the team that flies a three-person spaceship to an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles) twice within two weeks.
Two teams have announced official launch dates of Sept. 29 and Oct. 2 for their opening bids at the prize. More than 20 other groups have registered and are in various stages of developing vehicles capable of safely ferrying humans beyond the atmosphere.
The loss of Rubicon, valued at $20 million, was quickly topped by the grim death of a sister ship in Mesquite, Texas. The Black Armadillo ran out of gas - in midair.
It is a bit complicated how that happened, but basically the rocket used up way more propellant than it was designed to during its initial warm-up. The rocket never got to its intended altitude - if it had, it probably would have just shut off and returned to Earth feet first, said team leader John Carmack.
Instead, Black Armadillo began spinning, then slammed into the ground sideways, giving Carmark, the noted creator of apocalyptic video games Doom and Quake, a most un-virtual reality check.
Making lemonade out of his $35,000 worth of lemons, Carmack noted his company's supply of fresh Armadillo droppings has been restocked and anyone wishing to own a piece of space history can do so for $125.
It's a good thing Doom 3 is selling well, he added.
On a brighter note, a Canadian team is waiting in the wings for an X Prize run should one of the front-runners stumble. It recently tested the parachute system on its rocket's crew cabin successfully.
Members of the Canadian Arrow, an all-volunteer company based in London, Ontario, watched as a helicopter hovering about 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) above Lake Ontario dropped their mockup crew cabin for a parachute test. After a short fall, the 64-foot (9.1 meter) parachute ballooned out from the craft, slowing the descent. It settled into the water about six minutes later.
One of the key points of the test was to ensure the crew cabin would not become entangled in the parachute lines.
We had prepared for different things going wrong and we didn't have to use any of those preparations, team leader Geoffrey Sheerin told reporters after the test.
The equipment was recovered and the parachutes are being dried and repacked. Sheerin wants to be sure the gear can be recycled within the two weeks that X Prize contenders have to make their second flights.
The successful test clears Canadian Arrow for a planned launchpad abort demonstration, which is expected later this summer.
The Canadian Arrow has a rivalry going with fellow Canadian X-Prize contestant, the da Vinci Project, of Toronto, which recently found a major sponsor to bankroll its flights.
Team leader Brian Feeney has announced a launch date of Oct. 2, though his group is still developing the Wild Fire rocket and its helium-balloon launch system.
The Canadian Arrow team is thought to be in a position to speed up its testing program to complete the two X Prize flights before Jan. 1, when the contest expires. Most daunting to all contenders, however, is the upcoming flight of SpaceShipOne, an air-launched ship that already has reached sub-orbital altitude.
SpaceShipOne was developed by aircraft designer Burt Rutan, head of a company called Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif. Rutan received full funding for his project from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Rutan is targeting to vie for the X Prize with SpaceShipOne flights on Sept. 29 and Oct. 4.
The $10 million prize for certain would be welcomed by any of the other teams, but none except the da Vinci Project is pushing to give Rutan a race.
The X Prize was a venue to get people aboard, said Larry Clark, a 30-year-old astronaut candidate with the Canadian Arrow team. It is something we may pick up along the way, but that is not our primary goal. We have to meet our standards.
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