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Video: Rocket race

By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 10/6/2005 9:41:43 PM ET 2005-10-07T01:41:43

A year and two days after the world's first privately developed spaceship won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, leaders of the "personal spaceflight revolution" regrouped here on Thursday to reflect on the past and future course of their infant industry.

Several veterans of the X Prize competition said they hoped to match SpaceShipOne's prize-winning feat by the end of next year. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, the British company that is bankrolling the construction of a fleet of SpaceShipTwos, hinted that it may soon announce new twists in its space travel plans.

Although the details for future plans are still vague, one message came through loud and clear: The "giggle factor" that often dogged the space tourism industry in the pre-SpaceShipOne era is gone forever. "Now the idea of personal spaceflight can come out of the closet," Michael Kelly, vice president of the X Prize Foundation, told an audience of more than 200 at New Mexico State University here.

Thursday's symposium represented the kickoff for the Countdown to the X Prize Cup, an exposition that comes to a climax on Sunday with demonstration flights of rocket ships and displays of rocket hardware and mockups. The event was organized by the X Prize Foundation to build on last year's momentum.

Despite SpaceShipOne's success, space travel entrepreneurs still have some tough challenges ahead — and not necessarily technological ones, said Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace in Mojave, Calif.

"We don't know how to make spaceships that can fly a couple of times a day, every day for years," he said. "We don't know how to fly so safely and so reliably that we can fly people as a business. We don't know how to make money yet. ... If we're ever going to free ourselves from the kinds of fits and starts, one spurt of energy per generation, little incremental bits of progress that characterize government funding in space, we've got to start making a profit. And we don't know how to do that yet. We don't know any of those things. But we think we have pretty good ideas about how to solve them, and we aren't the only ones."

SpaceShipTwo: Fine-tuning the design
The X Prize contest's $10 million purse served as an extra push for the SpaceShipOne effort, a partnership powered by expertise from Burt Rutan and his team at Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites, and more than $25 million from software billionaire Paul Allen.

A similar partnership, called the Spaceship Company, has been formed by Rutan's Scaled Composites and British tycoon Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. They plan to build a fleet of five seven-passenger "SpaceShipTwo" spacecraft using SpaceShipOne technology.

The Spaceship Company team is still widely considered the leader in the post-X Prize space race for commercial space tourism; Virgin Galactic is aiming to begin commercial service in the 2008 time frame.

A mockup of the SpaceShipTwo craft is already being fine-tuned at Scaled Composites, and engineers are nailing down issues such as the placement of windows and seats, said Alex Tai, Virgin Galactic's vice president for operations.

Tai said Rutan and Branson were both intimately involved with the craft's design. He said one time when he asked Rutan how the work was going, the inventor replied: "It was all going fine, but Richard called up, and he wants more seats." Tai later told MSNBC.com that the Spaceship Company has not yet announced a change in the spaceships' seating capacity.

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Tai told the audience of rocket entrepreneurs and enthusiasts at Thursday's symposium that Virgin Galactic wasn't necessarily locked into using SpaceShipOne design exclusively, just as the Virgin Atlantic airline isn't locked into using a specific kind of airplane.

"We want to partner with all of the people in this industry. ... If you have a better spaceship than Burt Rutan, then Virgin Galactic wants to operate that spaceship," Tai said.

Da Vinci Project: Back in financing mode
In the latter days of the X Prize competition, the Canadian Da Vinci Project was considered SpaceShipOne's closest competitor, but once the prize was won, the Da Vinci team faded from view. At Thursday's symposium, Da Vinci team leader Brian Feeney said his timetable now called for a balloon-launched spaceflight by the end of next year — setting the stage for commercial flights.

He also said he was speaking with potential partners in Las Vegas, Dubai and Japan about creating a global "mission control center" that would follow suborbital flights and serve as a tourist destination.

However, Feeney acknowledged that his funding from the Golden Palace Internet casino had run out. "We're back in financing mode, and that will determine how we will progress," he said.

Other companies in the race
Meanwhile, another former X Prize contender — Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Inc. — is in the process of building its suborbital spaceship, a jet that is being modified with rocket engines for the boost to space.

"There's hardware on the floor, all kinds of engineering going on in our facilities in Oklahoma," said Chuck Lauer, Rocketplane's vice president of business development. "Our rollout is fall of '06, we are looking at actually flying our real space plane here at X Prize Cup 2006. Starting at the end of 2006, or 2007, our intention is to be minting lots of civilian astronaut wings for everybody that's climbing into our vehicle."

XCOR Aerospace sat out the X Prize race, but it's due to benefit from the second wave of the commercial space race with a contract from the nascent Rocket Racing League to design a set of rocket-powered "X-Racers" for NASCAR-style aerial competitions. XCOR's Greason declined to go into detail about his company's role, but the league has said the planes would be based on an airframe from Velocity Aircraft of Sebastian, Fla.

The X-Racers are not meant to go to the edge of outer space — defined as an altitude of 100 kilometers or 62 miles. But another XCOR project, to develop a suborbital spacecraft known as the Xerus, has received enough investor funding to move ahead after more than a year in limbo, Greason said.

"We are off the back burner [with the Xerus project], but we don't have enough money that I can confidently say we can finish working on the vehicle," Greason told MSNBC.com.

Orbital and sub-suborbital
Another venture, Transformational Space, is hoping government contracts will provide the millions of dollars needed to develop an air-launched craft that could be used later to take paying passengers on orbital trips to the international space station.

T/Space's president, David Gump, said he was waiting for word from NASA about a program that would fund the development of alternate delivery vehicles for station-bound cargo and crew. T/Space's proposed system for piloted missions, known as the Crew Transfer Vehicle or CXV, would build upon a concept that was originally drawn up for the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Gump said the CXV system could bring the cost of sending a four-person crew into orbit down to $20 million per flight — which is even less than the estimated $65 million cost of a Russian Soyuz launch. If the system becomes a reality, that could bring orbital flights within reach of tens of thousands of would-be fliers, Gump said.

"Personal spaceflight is the hammer that will drive down the cost of everything else we want to do in space," he said.

On the other end of the scale, High Altitude Research Corp. is developing a "sub-suborbital" launch system that would send payloads and perhaps eventually people to altitudes in the 10,000- to 100,000-foot range, said Don Robinson, president of the Huntsville, Ala.-based company.

The craft would give customers a chance to have personal items or experiments flown on a rocket ride, and provide a great show in the process.

"It seems like a smaller plan," Robinson acknowledged, "and it is a smaller plan, but sometimes we need to crawl before we can walk."

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