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Da Vinci X Prize Project Faces Final Insurance Deadline

Illustration of Wildfire. Image credit: The da Vinci Project.
Toronto (UPI) Oct 19, 2004
It is getting cold in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, with temperatures already dropping well below freezing and the prairie lands covered with a soft blanket of snow. Aspiring astronaut Brian Feeney, however, could not care less.

His ride to space is hearty, oblivious to the cold, though high winds would bedevil takeoff aboard the rocket's high-altitude helium balloon launcher. What has Feeney more concerned, though, is the calendar.

On Nov. 1, Feeney's insurance policy expires. The coverage is required by the Canadian government to provide a financial safety net in case people or property not involved with the flight are hurt or damaged. Obtaining the insurance was so important that the government refused to issue a launch license to Feeney's team. Without the insurance, the launch license expires as well.

Feeney, head of a team in Toronto called the da Vinci Project, has handled deadline pressures before. His group was the only one of 25 other teams registered to complete in the Ansari X Prize that even attempted to give the front-runner - Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif. - a run for the $10 million cash award.

Scaled's team, called Mojave Aerospace Ventures, clinched the X Prize Oct. 4 after it successfully flew its privately developed SpaceShipOne to sub-orbital altitude twice within two weeks, as contest rules stipulated.

For several weeks, Feeney had been targeting his first flight for two days before SpaceShipOne's second X Prize launch, but by the end of September it became clear to Feeney that his equipment would not be ready. He ended up traveling to Mojave to watch SpaceShipOne fly.

There was a big push on to compete for the X Prize itself, Feeney told United Press International. Well now, that's over. People said, 'You can sit back and take your time.' But that is not the case. We're pushing as hard as we can.

Perhaps too hard. Even though there is no more prize money, X Prize Foundation officials are continuing to monitor Feeney's progress - the X Prize logo still adorns his ship - and privately are urging him to sit out the rocket's first flight.

Our program has been manned all the way from day one, Feeney said.

Various parts of the da Vinci team's launch system have been tested, but they have not yet completed an integrated test. Feeney said he has not decided whether Wild Fire's first launch will be unmanned.

He vows to carry through on flights that meet X Prize criteria: Fly a privately developed three-passenger vehicle to 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, twice within two weeks.

Ballast can be used for mass equal to the weight of two passengers, safety gear and other specified hardware, but the rocket needs to carry no less than 588 pounds, including the pilot.

In the beginning, the X Prize was the catalyst that caught my attention back in 1996, Feeney said. It was a glorious endeavor that we didn't end up winning, but it was a focus.

The point of the competition was to spur private industry to design and build sub-orbital space vehicles to demonstrate that not only governments can fly in space.

Basically, if we fly (at any time), we win, said Feeney, who intends to develop an eight-person, sub-orbital ship for commercial passenger service. People are continuing to take a very serious interest in the project itself.

Feeney said those watching the team's progress include SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan. Feeney said he has spoken with Rutan about using SpaceShipOne's launcher, the White Knight aircraft, for the da Vinci Project's next-generation, sub-orbital vessel.

The most important thing we have to do is fly, Feeney said. After that, we can take a short, but much-needed break and properly capitalize for new ventures.

Feeney's prime sponsor so far has been an online gambling outfit called GoldenPalace.com. Despite not winning the X Prize, the relationship with GoldenPalace has remained strong, Feeney said.

The company leans toward stunt publicity - it has hired streakers branded with the company's Web address to disrupt major sports events, purchased famous or unusual items from eBay and then announced plans to donate or auction the items for charity - and its relationship with the da Vinci Project is no different.

Feeney's arrangement with GoldenPalace.com calls for him to fly with a laptop computer and place a bet while he is weightless in space. The transaction will be pre-programmed, as Feeney's planned sub-orbital trajectory results in only about three minutes of zero-gravity.

Other sponsor payloads include the famous Beckham soccer ball, which England's David Beckham sent sailing over the cross-bar during a Euro 2004 tournament playoff game against Spain and into the arms of a fan, who hid the ball under his shirt and left the stadium.

The fan later decided to sell the ball on eBay, GoldenPalace.com eventually purchased it.

The casino plans to raise money for charity by allowing people to use the ball to participate in penalty shoot-out-style competitions worldwide. One stop on the tour includes sub-orbital space.

More recently, GoldenPalace.com acquired another novelty from eBay: a one-of-a-kind Cabbage Patch Kid doll modeled after comedian and television talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. The company plans to continue the doll's mission to raise funds for charity by flying it aboard Feeney's rocket and reselling it.

Cabbage Patch Ellen is a hand-made, 16-inch doll that has been customized to capture the essence of DeGeneres.

The doll, which sports an Ellen hair style, is outfitted in a tailored Italian wool suit, custom made shirt with fine pink pearl buttons, signature boxer shorts, trendy shoes, diamond necklace, Timex watch and a Dory (from Finding Nemo) doll.

GoldenPalace.com is designing a new set of clothes for the doll, specially suited for its next venture: a spacesuit and helmet.

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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The $10 million X Prize has been won, but the next space race, worth an estimated $1 billion a year, is just beginning. For now, Virgin Galactic, a U.S. offshoot of entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Group in the United Kingdom, is the most visible of the half-dozen or so companies developing plans and vehicles to fly tourists to space.

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