Rocket-Balloon Combo—First Private Spaceship?

December 16, 2003

If all goes according to plan, the world's first independent manned space rocket will lift off from Kindersley Field, Saskatchewan, before the end of next year.

The mission sponsor is the da Vinci Project, the largest high-tech volunteer effort in Canadian history. About 200 volunteers are working on the project, headquartered in Toronto, with contributions from engineers in Montreal, Regina, Vancouver, and St. Petersburg, Russia.

"After we finish this, we're going to build the next pyramid, we have so many people working on this project," said Toronto-based Brian Feeney, da Vinci Project leader and a former designer of aerospace life-support systems for Avstar Aerospace.

The da Vinci project has been in the works for seven years, with funding in kind and cash from a multitude of corporate sponsors. The volunteers include air traffic controllers, graduate students, college professors, aerospace and thermodynamics engineers, and computer programmers—every specialty necessary to build a complete space-launch infrastructure from scratch.

The da Vinci inspiration is the X-Prize competition, announced in 1996 by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the Zero Gravity Corporation, who is based in Santa Monica, California. The purpose of the X-Prize is to jumpstart commercial space tourism by encouraging private groups to develop new spacecraft.

The X-Prize promises U.S. $10 million to the first group to build and launch a privately designed craft to the cusp of space—62.5 miles (100 kilometers) altitude—with three people aboard. But once is not enough, the rocket must then be flown again to the same height within two weeks.

Rockets and Balloons

The da Vinci Project engineers have a radical idea for getting into space: a rocket and balloon combination.

It's time to take a new look at how to escape the pull of Earth, said Feeney.

Conventional rockets typically start with a large first stage that pushes the rest of the rocket through the Earth's thick atmosphere. When the first stage is empty, it's ejected and the second stage ignites.

The first stage is nothing but dead weight, Feeney said. His team has replaced the first stage with a gigantic reusable helium balloon.

Feeney himself plans to pilot the Wild Fire. In the da Vinci dream scenario, the balloon, with the manned Wild Fire dangling hundreds of feet below, slowly rises to 15 miles (24 kilometers)—a quarter of the way to space, where the air pressure is one thirty-fifth that of sea level.

Continued on Next Page >>


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