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Space Race 2: Inflatables Take Shape

Illustration of TransHab - an inflatable space capsule concept.
by Irene Klotz
Cape Canaveral FL (UPI) Dec 07, 2004
There are no motors, no wings, not even a hint of a cockpit aboard the craft Brian Feeney plans to use as the first stage of his effort to get to space. Rather than rockets or aircraft, Feeney's ride into the sky is a helium balloon.

The whole idea is to raise the Earth, get the rocket as high as you can to minimize drag and reduce the size of the (rocket) engine you need to get to space, Feeney told United Press International.

Also, the most dangerous area for a rocket is near the ground under powered flight. If you lose the engine there, you've got very little time to bring in an abort scenario, whereas at altitude you've got lots of time to actually effect various scenarios and procedures, he said.

Feeney had hoped his balloon - the largest reusable balloon ever built - would be ready along with his Wild Fire rocket and requisite licenses in time to beat the team headed by California aircraft designer Burt Rutan to sub-orbital space.

The Canadian group Feeney heads, called the da Vinci Project, and Rutan's Mojave Aerospace Ventures, were among two dozen contenders for a $10 million cash prize offered for the first private crewed spaceflights.

The race, which ended Oct. 4. - when Rutan's SpaceShipOne returned successfully from its second flight in five days - was intended to demonstrate that spaceflight could be accomplished only by governments.

As summer slipped into fall, however, and SpaceShipOne conducted a high-profile test flight that reached the required sub-orbital altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers), Feeney's chances at the $10 million jackpot ebbed away.

Still, he was able to parlay his status as Rutan's lead competitor into a rewarding affiliation with a corporate sponsor, which provided a critical infusion of cash as well as a wave of publicity.

Officially, the da Vinci team, headquartered in Toronto, became The Space Program powered by the da Vinci Project.

After Rutan and partner Paul Allen clinched the X Prize, Feeney set his sights on flying before year's end. He repitched his goal of sending the first Canadian team into space and bunkered down to complete a test program in preparation for blastoff.

Last week, the 45-year-old aspiring astronaut - Feeney plans to pilot his own ship - completed a major milestone with the construction and testing of the 200-foot-tall, 153-foot-diameter reusable helium balloon.

The inflatable, made of polyethylene sheets, is designed to carry more than 7 1/2 tons of weight to an altitude of about 70,000 feet - about twice as high as commercial airliners fly.

It was a monumental undertaking, said Steven Davies, who headed the balloon production team for da Vinci. At no time in the program did we think this was something that could not be accomplished.

Pulling together the equipment for launch and testing the system is taking longer than expected, however. Feeney recently acknowledged da Vinci will not fly until January at the earliest. He also agreed to conduct an unmanned sub-orbital test flight before he climbs aboard for a ride beyond the atmosphere.

The X Prize competition required contenders to twice fly to 100 kilometers within two weeks in a ship carrying the weight of three people. Like SpaceShipOne's prize-winning flights, Feeney plans to fly solo with cargo to account for additional passenger weight.

Getting into the air is only the beginning. When it reaches altitude, a 250-meter (82-foot) tether that connects the Wild Fire rocket to the balloon will be released as the rocket's engine ignites to propel the craft beyond the atmosphere.

After firing for about 75 seconds, the rocket is expected to reach an altitude of about 63 kilometers or 39 miles.

Wild Fire will continue to climb until it peaks at about 85 kilometers or 53 miles. The engine block then will separate from the capsule and return to Earth, while the capsule continues to climb to about 110 kilometers or 68 miles before its begins free-falling back to the ground, creating an environment of weightlessness for about 3 1/2 minutes.

Drogue chutes will deploy when the craft reaches 12,190 meters or 40,000 feet, and the main parachute opens at 3,050 meters or 10,000 feet. At the time of touchdown, the capsule should be moving at about 16 feet per second or just over 10 miles per hour.

Lacking funds for contractors, the all-volunteer da Vinci team developed its hybrid rocket, as well as its craft's flight guidance system, in-house.

Space has no sense of humor, Feeney told UPI. We pay attention to every detail there is.

Among the team's most challenging tasks has been designing a helium balloon that can be reused. Over the summer, the team built and tested a smaller balloon to 40,000 feet.

They also conducted lab tests to stress the balloon to 1,200 pounds per square inch, or twice the expected loads during flight. Da Vinci volunteers then made a second test balloon to test manufacturing processes and launch procedures.

Feeney said he eventually plans to ditch the balloon concept when it comes time to develop a commercial version of Wild Fire.

I've actually talked to Burt (Rutan) about using White Knight, he said, referring to SpaceShipOne's jet carrier.

Meanwhile, an inflatable of another design is taking shape in the United States. At a guarded complex in north Las Vegas, hotel operator Robert Bigelow is overseeing production of a mockup inflatable structure he plans to launch next year.

The owner of Budget Suites of America Hotel Chain wants to expand to space and has agreements with NASA to use technology developed under the agency's TransHab program. TransHab was an engineering and test program to design an inflatable habitation module for the space station.

Bigelow Aerospace recently won approval from the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation to launch the inflatable, called Genesis, aboard a new rocket being developed by entrepreneur Elon Musk's company, Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif.

SpaceX, as the company is known, plans the debut flight of a smaller version of its Falcon rocket in January. The Genesis launch is targeted for November.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2004 by United Press International. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by United Press International. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of by United Press International.

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Cape Canaveral FL (UPI) Nov 30, 2004
Thirty-year-old Larry Clark, already an accomplished commercial airline pilot and flight instructor, is in line to become one of the world's first private astronauts. Clark's company, Canadian Arrow, was among more than two dozen teams that competed earlier this year in a $10 million race to send a privately developed spaceship into sub-orbital flight.

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