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Image: Feeney and Wild Fire
Mike Cassese  /  Reuters file
Da Vinci team leader and pilot Brian Feeney looks into the cockpit of the unfinished Wild Fire rocket during the vehicle's unveiling in Toronto on Aug. 5.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 9/24/2004 4:26:50 PM ET 2004-09-24T20:26:50

Less than 10 days before its scheduled rocket launch, the da Vinci Project says its bid to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize is on hold for the next couple of weeks. The postponement of the Oct. 2 launch means that Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne team has a clearer shot at winning the money.

The delay is due to problems with the "availability of a few key components and their integration into the overall spaceflight program," according to an advisory posted late Thursday to the project's Web site.

Team leader and pilot Brian Feeney told MSNBC.com on Friday that the "long pole in the tent" had to do with fabricating the composite-material pressure vessel that would go within da Vinci's Wild Fire rocket ship. "It boils down to a lack of multi-axis filament winders in Canada. ... Everything else is inside the envelope and in hand," he said.

Feeney said he was reluctant to agree to the delay, but decided to put off the launch now rather than waiting until the last minute.

"I've never used any excuse not to do this," he said. "I'm probably the one that fought it right up to the wire."

Volunteers at da Vinci's Toronto-area home base and in the Saskatchewan city of Kindersley, where the launch was to have taken place, were told about the delay on Thursday. The project secured financing from its primary sponsor, the GoldenPalace.com Internet casino venture, only last month, and observers had wondered for weeks whether da Vinci's balloon-based launch system would be ready by Oct. 2.

The da Vinci Project and Scaled Composites are considered the front-runners in the race to win the Ansari X Prize, which is aimed at promoting private-sector space programs. Scaled Composite's SpaceShipOne effort has received more than $20 million in funding from software billionaire Paul Allen, who was rated just this week as America's third-richest individual.

Eyes on the prize
The $10 million X Prize purse would be awarded to the first registered team to send a privately developed, piloted craft to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) twice in a two-week time frame, with the required amount of extra weight.

SpaceShipOne is scheduled for its first prizeworthy launch from California's Mojave Desert next Wednesday, with the second prize-winning mission tentatively set for Oct. 4. That's the 47th anniversary of the Soviet Union's Sputnik launch, which is considered the opening shot of the first space race .

If the SpaceShipOne schedule holds true, the only way for da Vinci to win would have been to launch its Wild Fire rocket on Oct. 2, then once again within two days.

Now the SpaceShipOne team could conceivably launch their craft three times in the two-week window or go with a longer turnaround time, providing an extra margin for winning the prize.

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The da Vinci flight plan depends on sending a 300-foot-tall (90-meter-tall) helium-filled balloon to an altitude of more than 70,000 feet (21 to 24 kilometers), with the 9,350-pound (4,250-kilogram) Wild Fire rocket tethered beneath it. The rocket would be released at ignition, with Feeney piloting it to the target altitude. The crew capsule and rocket body would then descend to Earth under parachutes.

A small-scale test of the balloon was conducted successfully on Sept. 12, after more than a week's delay due to unacceptable weather. But many challenges remained to be solved during the final countdown.

'We're still a go for launch'
The hurdles have been of a bureaucratic as well as a technical nature. The Canadian government has not yet officially cleared the da Vinci Project for takeoff, although project organizers say the government should have all the required documents for approval.

“The flight insurance for the two launches has been secured,” Feeney was quoted as saying in the Web advisory. “We’re still a go for launch. We’ve made milestone progress since the early August arrival of our title sponsor, Golden Palace.com, and we intend to prove that Canadians can and will put a man into space.”

Feeney told MSNBC.com that he still had hopes of winning the $10 million later in October. Sources contacted by Space.com and Space Race News have hinted at a two-week delay, but Feeney said he was reluctant to name a date until his team arrived at the Kindersley site and tested the launch system.

"It's not over till it's over," Feeney said.

It will be officially over if the SpaceShipOne rocket plane reaches the 100-kilometer mark twice by mid-October. But that's not a sure thing: During its historic spaceflight in June, the craft exceeded that altitude by merely 408 feet (124 meters).

For the upcoming round of X Prize flights, SpaceShipOne's rocket engine has been given an extra boost; however, the spaceship will be required to carry up extra ballast equivalent to the weight of two 198-pound (90-kilogram) passengers. It's also not yet clear whether the reusable rocket plane can be turned around for a second flight in a matter of days.

The da Vinci team is prepared to keep going even if SpaceShipOne and its high-profile designer, Burt Rutan, get to the $10 million finish line first. "If he wins, will we fly anyway? Absolutely yes," Feeney said.

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