Rick Searfoss has just a few minutes left before show time. He keeps an eye on the clock, knowing he still has to change into his stage clothes, but his voice remains steady, his concentration focused.
With seconds to go, he slips behind a closed door and steps into his blue flight suit. It is a relic of times past when he used to be a NASA astronaut and a space-shuttle commander. Now, the outfit lends a ring of authenticity to Searfoss's shtick as star of the Astronaut Encounter show at the Kennedy Space Center visitor's center.
Six years since he hung up his space boots, Searfoss finds himself drawn into the inner sanctum of a new human spaceflight program, one being waged sans NASA. Searfoss is chief judge in the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition. It is a volunteer job that he juggles along with guest appearances, speaking engagements and motivational training gigs.
Searfoss retired his astronaut wings in 1998 after three spaceflights, including a mission to the Russian Mir space station that he commanded.
In an interview with United Press International, Searfoss said he had grown disenchanted with how the agency was handling the International Space Station program and weary of the politics that astronauts had to undergo to secure a seat on the shuttle.
It really was just time to go, he said.
Eventually, Searfoss and his family found themselves in Mojave, Calif. He had accepted a new job with NASA at the Dryden Flight Research Center as a research test pilot.
He would not get to fly in space, but he would get to fly. He had no idea a human space program of quite another feather was roosting in the neighborhood and it wasn't long before Searfoss became caught up in a new space race, this one fueled by private dollars.
After attending his first space tourism conference - I had no idea all this was going on, he said - Searfoss became enamored with the idea that non-government entities were making inroads into space.
Eventually he agreed to take on the responsibility of chief judge of the X Prize competition. His Mojave home base made it very convenient to keep tabs on the front-runner - the Burt Rutan-Paul Allen partnership known as Mojave Aerospace Ventures.
The team's craft, called SpaceShipOne, is scheduled to make the first of two required X Prize flights next week.
By outward appearances, Searfoss's job is straightforward: Declare which team built and first flew successfully a three-passenger spacecraft to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) twice within two weeks.
In practice, however, judging the contest began months ago, with occasionally sensitive negotiations over what would constitute pilot/astronaut safety gear and onboard altitude- verification instruments.
To ensure contenders' vehicles were not just stunt ships, but real vessels capable of ferrying people into space, contest organizers decided that to qualify for the prize, the spaceships must carry passenger weight equivalent to 596 pounds (270 kilograms).
That amount of mass would account for three people weighing 198 pounds (90 kilograms) each - heavy for the average person, but designed to accommodate the fliers' helmets and protective clothing, escape systems and all life-support gear.
Later, it was determined that any equipment the X Prize Foundation wanted to put aboard the ships during flight, such as video cameras, also would count toward the required passenger mass. The rockets would have to carry ballast of some type to make up for any shortfalls in their mass requirement.
Searfoss said his discussions with Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites has gotten down to the gram - and even half-gram - which might seem petty until the laws of physics are taken into consideration.
Every fraction of matter that wrestles against Earth's gravity requires energy to move. Flying something that weighs 1 pound from Earth to space typically costs about $10,000 via the space shuttle and other, commercially available launch vehicles.
One goal of the X Prize competition is to spur alternative ways of reaching space, to make what is widely thought to be the most lucrative business - transporting human passengers - safe and affordable.
Searfoss has given Scaled Composites partial credit for SpaceShipOne's removable nosecap, because it provides an alternative means of escape in an emergency. He also credited a small payload for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.
Everything is earmarked and booked down to the fraction of an ounce, Searfoss said.
During the time between SpaceShipOne's first and second X Prize flights, the craft will be watched around the clock by contest officials to ensure the passenger mass requirements will be rigorously observed.
Searfoss and his team of judges have not spent much time overseeing flight preparations of a Canadian team known as the da Vinci Project, which has announced a launch date of Oct. 2. But as testing and assembly of the team's Wild Fire vehicles continues, Searfoss will be ready to step in.
Occasionally, the job of chief judge has had its delicate moments. At one point, Rutan wanted to supplement SpaceShipOne's lift with small Sidewinder rockets.
That could have been a problem, because the rockets are on the International Traffic in Arms Regulation watch list, which would prevent non-U.S., X Prize teams from being able to buy similar equipment.
I was worried about it for a while, Searfoss said, but in the end they decided not to pursue that idea.
X Prize Foundation officials hope the successful conclusion of its space race and the award of $10 million to the winner will inspire others to step forward to sponsor similar events, with the ultimate goal of creating a thriving space tourism business.
They like to recall the early days of aviation, when no one could have imagined the role air transport ultimately would play in world culture and economics, and they intend to create the conditions for a similar renaissance in space.
Searfoss, for one, is ready to go. As chief judge, he is receiving a is receiving a small honorarium for his efforts. The real payoff, however, may come after the competition, when he hopes once again to find himself in the cockpit of a ship heading into space.
Space Race 2 is a weekly series exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight, by Irene Klotz, who writes about space and aviation for UPI Science News. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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SpaceDev's Rocket Motors For X-Prize Attempt No Laughing Matter
Poway CA (SPX) Sep 14, 2004
SpaceDev after recently completing work on a full duration, maximum energy, ground test firing of a more powerful version of the rocket motors destined for SpaceShipOne, SpaceDev has assembled and shipped the rocket motors that will be used for the upcoming historic attempt by SpaceShipOne to win the $10 million Ansari X-Prize.
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