X Prize competitors announce flight plans
BY JEFF FOUST
Posted: July 27, 2004
The $10-million Ansari X Prize took on a David vs. Goliath flavor on Tuesday, as one well-funded team announced plans to fly its vehicle in late September in a bid for the prize while an upstart Canadian competitor reasserted its plans to go after the prize this fall as well.
At a press conference in Santa Monica, California, officials with the Ansari X Prize and Scaled Composites announced that Scaled's vehicle, SpaceShipOne, will make the first of two required flights to win the prize on September 29 from the airport in Mojave, California. Under the contest rules the second flight would have to take place within two weeks, or by October 13, although Scaled founder Burt Rutan suggested it would be possible to fly the vehicle as early as one week before that date.
SpaceShipOne already entered the history books on June 21 when it became the first privately-developed manned vehicle to enter space, reaching a peak altitude of 100.1 kilometers. The vehicle, however, encountered some problems on its flight which caused it to fall nearly 10 kilometers short of its planned maximum altitude, and barely pass the 100-kilometer boundary of space.
During a teleconference with reporters after the announcement, Rutan asserted that the problems, which included a roll trim stabilizer that stalled momentarily, had been corrected. Most of the problems, he said, actually came from encountering some wind shear moments after the vehicle detached from its carrier aircraft, White Knight, and fired its rocket engine. "As it turns out we're not making any changes on the ship at all," he said.
One difference between the upcoming two flights and the June flight is that the vehicle will have to carry ballast to simulate the mass of two passengers. Rutan said that this will require the vehicle to fly a more accurate flight profile than on the June flight, or get additional thrust from its rocket engine. However, engineers plan to remove some unneeded components from SpaceShipOne, reducing its mass somewhat. With those changes, "the amount of weight we have to add is closer to one person rather than two," Rutan said.
The X Prize was established in 1996 in an effort to stimulate the development of commercial suborbital vehicles that could fly space tourists and serve other markets as well. To win the prize, a team must build a three-person reusable vehicle using only private-sector funds, and fly the vehicle to 100 kilometers twice in a two-week period. The prize was renamed the Ansari X Prize in May of this year in recognition of entrepreneurs Anousheh and Amir Ansari, who donated the money the prize organizers used to purchase a "hole-in-one" insurance policy to fund the $10-million purse. That policy expires at the end of this year, adding additional urgency to win the prize.
SpaceShipOne has been regarded for months, well before its June suborbital flight, as being the most likely to win the prize by the end of the year. However, with more than two dozen teams registered to compete for the prize, not all of Scaled's competitors are throwing in the towel. At the same press conference where Scaled announced its SpaceShipOne flight plans, Canadian competitor The da Vinci Project announced it would unveil its vehicle, Wild Fire, on August 5 in Toronto.
Wild Fire, under development by da Vinci for several years, is carried aloft by a helium balloon from a site near the town of Kindersley in western Saskatchewan. At an altitude of about 24 kilometers, the vehicle separates and fires its rocket engine. It coasts to a peak altitude of over 100 kilometers before deploying a ballute‹an inflatable, cone-shaped shield‹that slows the vehicle during reentry. The vehicle lands using parachutes, with the ballute cushioning the landing.
Besides the technical differences, SpaceShipOne and Wild Fire have taken very different development paths. SpaceShipOne was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a billionaire who has spent money on a diverse array of ventures from sports franchises to a science fiction museum. Allen, the sole SpaceShipOne investor, has put at least $20 million into the project, and according to some estimates as much as $40 million. At the June SpaceShipOne flight Allen's name was visible everywhere from the vehicle itself to the backdrop behind the podium at the pre- and post-flight press conferences.
The da Vinci Project, however, has run on a shoestring budget. Team leader Brian Feeney said at the press conference that the project has relied on donations of time and materials: some 600 people have volunteered on the effort. The project has raised only $337,000 in cash, he said, and still was able to complete the vehicle. "I will not let a lack of money be an excuse not to let this project get done," he said.
Money though, does remain the major obstacle to flying Wild Fire, Feeney admitted. He estimated the project needs to raise $350,000 to carry out the first flight, to cover everything from helium for the balloon to insurance to airfare for the hundreds of volunteers working on the vehicle. "We need Canada's equivalent of Paul Allen to step forward," he said.
Feeney is keeping an eye on the future‹he described at the press conference plans to develop a larger eight-person successor to Wild Fire‹but has no plans yet to concede the X Prize to SpaceShipOne. "Our goal is to compete for and win the X Prize," he said. "We are definitely in the hunt and contending for it. But the most important goal I see for The da Vinci Project is that we fly. We will fly this fall and in a competitive timeframe up against Burt and SpaceShipOne."