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Space Race Heats Up

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by Irene Klotz
Cape Canaveral FL (UPI) Jul 20, 2004
Mike Melvill's exo-atmospheric excursion aboard a privately developed rocket already may have accomplished the primary goal of a new-age space race by showing that governments are not the only entities that can transport people off the planet.

There is still the matter of the $10 million cash prize and trophy, however, which are to be awarded to the first team that reaches the edge of space with a three person-craft, then repeats the voyage within two weeks. Also, the problems Melvill experienced during his test-run last month open a window of opportunity for the other contestants in the Ansari X Prize competition.

Everybody is a contender, said Geoff Sheerin, head of team called the Canadian Arrow based in London, Ontario.

If you look at the history of aviation races, the first guy on the runway with the most well-funded project and everything is not necessarily the one who makes it, he told United Press International.

No one wishes anyone to have any less success then they should optimally have, added Brian Feeney, who leads another Canadian team called the da Vinci Project of Scarborough, in Toronto.

What it means to us, though, because they had some technical setbacks, is that it has given us anywhere from three weeks to a month and a half of additional time -- depending on how fast they react to it -- to pull everything together and we're using every day -- every moment.

Melvill, flying aboard an aircraft designed by Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites, his firm in Mojave, Calif., cleared the 100-kilometer (62 mile) altitude officially recognized as the boundary of space -- but only just. A problem with the ship's flight control system caused the vehicle to stray 22 miles off-course and short of its intended altitude.

Nevertheless, Melvill was awarded the country's first civilian astronaut wings and the Scaled Composites team immediately set about finding the cause of the problem. The company's run for the X Prize competition, which will involve at least two flights with a pilot and another 396 pounds of ballast, is now not expected until mid-September at the earliest.

Of the 26 teams officially registered as X Prize contestants, Feeney's da Vinci Project appears best-positioned to challenge Rutan for the grand prize. His entry, called the Wild Fire MKVI, is not a bird of beauty like Rutan's artistic duo, SpaceShipOne and the carrier aircraft White Knight. What it lacks in glamour, however, it makes up in simplicity.

Feeney's 26-foot-long, 78-inch-diameter rocket is based on the ballistic missile design that has been the core of U.S. and international launch vehicle programs since their inception. Like Rutan's vessel, the rocket will be launched well above ground level, but unlike SpaceShipOne, the Wild Fire will get its boost from a helium balloon, not a piloted aircraft.

When the balloon reaches an altitude of about 80,000 feet -- the trip should take about 90 minutes -- the rocket will be released from its tether and fire its engine for about 75 seconds. When Wild Fire reaches about 85 kilometers (53 miles) the rocket segment separates from the passenger compartment, which continues climbing to an apogee of about 110 kilometers to 115 kilometers (68 miles to 71 miles). The rocket block and capsule will parachute independently to a ground landing. The balloon, likewise, is reusable.

Unlike SpaceShipOne, Wild Fire's first launch will not be a test run.

The difference between ourselves and a ship like SpaceShipOne is that Burt's ship has got wings and over time there has been just a basic envelope of (performance) expansion just to be sure the thing flies, Feeney told UPI. Our's is a ballistic rocket that has very well known characteristics in terms of the dynamics and stability of the flight. When you are launching something like this you pretty much know what is going to happen. You might as well go for it, so to speak.

Feeney has the most to lose if anything goes wrong, because he is the one who will be flying aboard Wild Fire.

I'm the head of quality control, he said, only partly in jest.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the top two contenders in the X Prize competition is their funding. Rutan won financial backing from one of the wealthiest people in the world, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who said he has contributed more than $20 million to the effort. The da Vinci Project is an all-volunteer program that has raised less than $500,000 and received about $4 million worth of goods and services from several corporate sponsors.

The team still needs to raise another $350,000 to $500,000 to complete the X Prize flights.

We definitely will fly, Feeney said. The money will find its way to us.

Feeney would like to win the X Prize, but he says it is not the most important aspect of the race.

The core of the project is inspiration and education to inspire particularly young people, but anyone of any age, and them to show that it can be done, he said. I hope following our initiatives that in Canada we'll have five, 10 or more new startup companies that will come to the forefront and say, 'Yes, we can do that too,' and go to the capital market and start pioneering away. Whether it's ourselves or Burt or others, we're all having an effect worldwide.

Feeney's fellow Canadian competitor, Sheerin, added: Riding beside Mike Melvill that day was the credibility of every one of the X Prize teams. As soon as that was successful, it shone a light on all of us. I think the space industry was opened then without winning the X Prize.

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Scaled Aims For Late September X Prize Flights
Los Angeles - Jul 09, 2004
During an interview on US news network MSNBC this week, SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill told Deborah Norville that Scaled Composites is planning to shortly give the required 60 days notice that it will fly back to back X Prize qualified flights in an attempt to win the $10 million X Prize.

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