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Image: Maryniak and Feeney
Aaron Harris  /  AP
Da Vinci Project pilot Brian Feeney, right, tries on a space helmet while Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the X Prize Foundation, looks on during a news briefing Thursday in Toronto. The Canada-based da Vinci Project plans to launch its Wild Fire rocket on Oct. 2.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 8/6/2004 11:23:23 AM ET 2004-08-06T15:23:23

An Internet gambling company has put down a six-figure bet on a Canadian group of rocketeers, hoping that the da Vinci Project’s Wild Fire rocket can capture a $10 million prize for private spaceflight in October. GoldenPalace.com's contribution, announced Thursday in Toronto, has turned the Ansari X Prize competition into an honest-to-goodness space race.

Fueled by the Antigua-based casino's cash, the da Vinci Project plans to conduct its first full-fledged space launch from high above the prairies of Saskatchewan on Oct. 2, only three days after the rival SpaceShipOne team's X Prize takeoff from California's Mojave Desert.

Even that short gap makes the da Vinci Project the dark horse in this race: The only way the Canadian team can win the $10 million is to do everything right and hope something goes wrong with the SpaceShipOne schedule.

"It's tight," Brian Feeney, the da Vinci Project's leader and designated pilot for the Wild Fire rocket, acknowledged to MSNBC.com. "It's a race. We deliberately moved very hard and very fast, as fast as we could, to keep that as the narrowest possible gap."

GoldenPalace.com's sponsorship deal was completed only in the past few days, and Feeney said he gave the X Prize Foundation the required 60-day advance notice for launch as of Tuesday — exactly 60 days before Oct. 2.

Sizing up the rivalry
Last week, the SpaceShipOne team — headed by famed aviation designer Burt Rutan and backed by software billionaire Paul Allen — gave notice that it would make its first X Prize launch attempt on Sept. 29. The $10 million purse goes to the first team to send a privately developed spaceship to an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles) twice within two weeks.

SpaceShipOne first reached the 100-kilometer mark on June 21 , qualifying as the first privately developed vehicle to go into outer space, but the rocket plane didn't carry enough weight during that flight to qualify as an X Prize try.

Rutan said last week that he hoped to follow up on the Sept. 29 flight with a prize-winning launch on Oct. 4 — the 47th anniversary of the Soviet Sputnik launch that kicked off the first space race. If he holds true to that schedule, there's no way Wild Fire could be launched twice before then to snatch the prize.

Feeney acknowledged that it could take "anywhere from a week to two weeks" to refurbish Wild Fire after its first X Prize launch, meaning that its second launch could come no earlier than Oct. 9.

Thus, a successful Canadian X Prize bid would depend on something delaying SpaceShipOne's schedule, said GoldenPalace.com spokesman Drew Black. "Nothing violent, but just so that it takes more time for them to get off the ground," Black said.

Since last week's announcement, the SpaceShipOne team has declined comment on the Ansari X Prize competition, deferring to the X Prize Foundation — and now that the contest is coming down to the wire, Feeney was similarly reluctant to say too much about his preparations. "I know Burt is listening," he said.

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The X Prize Foundation's executive director, Gregg Maryniak, attended Thursday's proceedings in Toronto and said he was glad two teams had announced X Prize countdowns.

"One spaceship is a flight test, two spaceships is a horse race," he told MSNBC.com in a telephone interview.

Casino's colorful past
GoldenPalace.com is licensed in Antigua as well as the Kahnawake Mohawk territory in Quebec. The company has been a sponsor of the Montreal Expos baseball team, the National Hockey League and auto racing teams — as well as a controversial string of streaking incidents at sports events.

Black said GoldenPalace.com was in agreement with the X Prize mission.

"The reasoning behind this whole Ansari X Prize project is to promote space tourism, to send up a spacecraft with five, 10, 20 people in it into outer space," he observed. "We believe it will happen in the near future, and they will be organizing gambling junkets like they do on riverboats today. Space is the final frontier for us, too."

When the company decided to look into spaceflight sponsorship, it started out with SpaceShipOne, Black said.

"Weeks ago, we tried calling the Paul Allen project, and they don't take any sponsorships," he told MSNBC.com. "We did some research, and watching TV we found out about this project, and we just fell in love with it."

As many as 27 teams have been vying for the Ansari X Prize, but Black said the da Vinci Project appeared to pose the only serious challenge to the SpaceShipOne team.

"It's really a David-and-Goliath story, where Paul Allen has put $20 million into his project," he said.

Contributions add up
Feeney has referred to the da Vinci Project as Canada's largest volunteer technology project, benefiting from $4 million in in-kind contributions, 150,000 worker-hours of donated labor, and $337,000 in cash donations over the past eight years. Last week, Feeney said he needed another $350,000 in cash to fund Wild Fire's first flight, and $150,000 for each flight thereafter.

On Thursday, Feeney declined to say how much GoldenPalace.com was contributing, but Black said "we put in the last piece of the puzzle to get into space." When the da Vinci Project's financial needs were described to Black, he responded, "That's what it was. We did put in enough."

Black said the Wild Fire rocket would be festooned with GoldenPalace.com logos, following the model for NASCAR race cars. Feeney would also be carrying up an Internet-connected laptop that would enable him to play computer games, backing up GoldenPalace.com's claim to be the first casino in space.

"He's going to probably have just a few seconds, but he will play a couple of hands of blackjack and spin a couple of slots," Black said.

The rocket would also carry a prized soccer ball that was kicked into the stands by soccer great David Beckham during a Euro 2004 match. GoldenPalace.com purchased "Beckham's Ball" for almost $35,000 via an online auction site, and the casino's founder and chief executive officer, Richard Rowe, is taking the ball on a worldwide tour to raise money for charity, Black said.

Rocket rollout
The Wild Fire rocket received its official rollout Thursday from the da Vinci hangar at Toronto's Downsview Airport, but construction of the vehicle is not yet finished. Between now and October, the craft will be completed and tested, then painted and covered with corporate logos, then trucked about 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) to the town of Kindersley in Saskatchewan for launch.

Image: Wild Fire launch
da Vinci Project
An artist's conception shows the Wild Fire rocket blasting toward space, with the launch system's helium-filled balloon below.
The flight plan calls for Wild Fire to be lofted into the air at the end of a 750-foot (230-meter) cable attached to a giant helium-filled balloon. When the balloon and the spacecraft are at an altitude of 80,000 feet (24,400 meters), Feeney would fire up the rocket engine and cut loose, blasting up beyond the required 100-kilometer altitude. A spherical crew capsule would separate from the cylindrical engine body, and both segments would parachute back down to earth.

Feeney declined to say exactly what kind of propellant the engine would be using — but Maryniak said it was being provided by Florida-based Environmental Aeroscience Corp., which also has been involved in the SpaceShipOne project. Like SpaceShipOne, Wild Fire would use nitrous oxide as the engine's oxidizer.

While the SpaceShipOne rocket plane has been undergoing flight tests for more than a year, Wild Fire has not yet taken to the air — leading some observers to voice concern about the timetable for the da Vinci Project's sprint to the finish line.

Maryniak acknowledged that Feeney had set a "pretty aggressive" schedule, and NBC News space analyst James Oberg said the X Prize race was entering "the most exciting — and potentially the most dangerous — phase."

But Feeney said he felt no fear about the upcoming launch.

"No, I can't wait," he said. "It's been a long, long time coming. ... The big issue for me was the fear that we would not be able to fly."

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