US, Canadian X Prize Teams Schedule Launches

Two independent groups seeking to win a private, US$10 million space-travel contest known as the X Prize have announced they are closer to actually meeting the terms for the prize, with back-to-back, manned flights planned for the fall.

The SpaceShipOne team, which achieved mankind’s first private spaceflight with a person in the Mojave Desert last month, gave 60 daysnotice that it will attempt to add the weight of two more people and fly 100kilometers to the edge of space twice within two weeks. Microsoftcofounder and SS1 financier Paul Allen and Scaled Composites head Burt Rutanannounced the first flight was scheduled for September 29, and a second could comeas soon as one week later.

While SS1 has garnered most of the attention for X Prize competitors,a second team in Canada also announced this week that its Wild Firespacecraft, which launches in the sky from a helium balloon, is ready tomake its own run at the prize this fall with a far smaller budget and atotally different idea from the da Vinci Project team.

“The American Mojave Aerospace Ventures Team and the Canadian daVinci Project Team are just two of the 26 competing groups who will somedaymake it possible for spacecrafts to be conducted from commercial spaceportsacross the globe,” Peter Diamandis, chairman and founder of the XPrize Foundation, said. “When the Ansari X Prize competition is won, it will heraldthe start of a new renaissance of spaceflight in which the general publicwill have their chance to fly next,” he said.

More History in Making

After successfully launching and flying the SS1 craft to the designated altitude of 100 km a month ago, the team said it is now ready to add the ballast weight equivalent of two passengers, in addition to pilot Mike Melvill.

Despite some reported problems during the last flight, the SS1 teamsaid the craft and pilot should be able to repeat the effort well within twoweeks if the first flight September 29 is successful.

“The idea of competitions have always had a rich heritage in oursociety,” Allen said in a statement. “This competition has proven thatthere are many different ways to attack the challenges set out by the Ansari XPrize.”

Canadian Contender

The Toronto-based da Vinci Project team, which plans to launch itsWild Fire craft at 80,000 feet from an unmanned, reusable helium balloon intosuborbital space, is not far behind the SS1 team, with a totally different design.

The group said its craft will be available for viewing beginningAugust 5 at its Downsview Airport Hanger in Toronto.

“The da Vinci Project team has made huge strides in the past year, andwe’re excited to finally share Wild Fire with the public,” teamleader Brian Feeney said. “We’re in the commercial tourist race for the long haul,and, while working with an all-volunteer team, we’ve been able to accomplishmajor aviation and space milestones in pursuit of the Ansari X Prize,” he said.

Implications In Space

The Space Review editor Jeff Foust told TechNewsWorld the X Prize hasbeen instrumental in promoting commercial, human, suborbitalspaceflight.

“Suborbital has the advantage of permitting a more incremental, staged approach to spacecraft development. This opens up commercial markets that include not just tourism but remote sensing, microgravity testing (a suborbital flight can offer several minutes of continuous weightlessness, far more than what one can get on aircraft like NASA’s “Vomit Comet”), and, down the road, fast package delivery and point-to-point transportation. This allows a more gradual development of vehicles while still making money, rather than making the big leap to an orbital vehicle.

Foust said the X Prize has been promoting the vision since themid-1990s, long before suborbital spaceflight was fashionable, and deserves a lotof the credit for spurring development of SpaceShipOne and other vehicles.

Foust also said other X Prize competitors are important to providingalternatives, and many likely will compete in other competitions, such asthe X Prize Cup, a planned competition set to kickoff in New Mexico in 2005.

Still Experimental

Foust said the biggest challenge for SS1 is making sure that they have addressed the technical issues they encountered in the last flight — which they claim they have.

“Unlike the last flight, the X Prize flights require them to carry the ballast weight equivalent of two passengers, or about 400 pounds,” Foust added. “This will provide an additional challenge for them, making sure they get enough performance from their engine and avoid the trajectory excursions SpaceShipOne encountered on its last flight.”

Although some were hoping the team would add actual people instead ofthe ballast weight, Foust said it made sense.

“This is still an experimental vehicle, and things can still go wrong,” he said. “It’s prudent to minimize the risk to people until the vehicle’s characteristics are better understood.”

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