Edge-of-Space Ship Designers Vie for Sky-High Prize

Sam Burbank
National Geographic Today
July 7, 2003
Government space agencies just can't fly fast enough to satisfy the demand for in-space applications like satellite communications, tourism, and energy harvesting.

So entrepreneurs around the world are developing a private aerospace industry with the passion, resourcefulness, and energy of pioneers.

One incentive that symbolizes the new private space race is the X-Prize: U.S. ten million dollars for the first team to send three people to the brink of space—about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Earth—and return them safely, then duplicate the feat in the same spacecraft within two weeks.

The X-Prize puts a premium on a reusable, economical spacecraft—not a ponderous, pricey shuttle.

To aerospace entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, mastermind, chairman, and president of the privately funded X-Prize Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, the award is akin to the Orteig Prize that inspired Charles Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic in 1927.

"We now have 25 registered teams, and at least six are actively building flight hardware," Diamandis says. "It's possible that we'll see one or two teams make flight attempts toward the 60-mile [100-kilometer] threshold before the end of the year, but I expect that the actual winning flights will be in early 2004."

"The most important thing going on here is people are starting to dream again," says Diamandis.

Registered teams come from Argentina, Canada, Great Britain, Israel, Romania, Russia, and the United States.

Ground Zero for American Private Rocketry

The hotbed of American private rocketry is the Mojave Civilian Flight Test Center, in Mojave, California, ground zero for half a dozen new rocket companies.

Like other high-tech industries, private rocketry relies mainly on venture capital for funding.

"For the first year we funded ourselves out of our savings accounts," says Dan DeLong, Chief Engineer at XCOR Aerospace. "None of us is rich, and that got really scary. Fortunately, Mojave is a real low-cost-of-living place to be."

The Mojave atmosphere is invigorating for the independent rocketeers.

"You can get away with stuff here that maybe you couldn't try anywhere else," says Buzz Lange, an engineer and crew chief with XCOR, a rocket company founded in 1999. "Running a rocket engine is normal, everyday fare. It's pretty exciting."

XCOR has pulled together a team of a dozen space enthusiasts, some with experience at NASA or big aerospace companies. Most of the XCOR staffers have dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

"I framed my first rejection for the astronaut program, and that was in the 1970s," Lange says. "So you can just imagine how low I'd qualify now. We want to go to space, and the line is just a little too long at NASA."

XCOR hasn't registered for the X-Prize but is keeping all options open.

EZ-Rocket to Xerus

The XCOR staffers are convinced they have an idea that will fly: a rocket-plane that takes off from a normal runway, then points straight up, and propels the paying passengers to the black edge of space for a brief visit with weightlessness and a unique photo opportunity.

XCOR's first step was the so-called EZ-Rocket—essentially a build-it-yourself Long-EZ aircraft with rocket engines added that runs on a mix of rubbing alcohol and liquid oxygen. It can fly to a maximum altitude of two miles.

XCOR successfully tested the spacecraft in 2001. But it seats only a pilot and it can't make it all the way to space.

"We built the EZ-Rocket to show that we have a team that can put a rocket engine on a flight vehicle, and that we can fly multiple times per day for a reasonable price," DeLong says.

XCOR has since racked up another 14 flights—and it's a crowd-pleaser at air shows.

EZ-Rocket is the first incarnation of a larger rocket-plane, Xerus, envisioned as a spacecraft. In March, XCOR tested a new type of rocket engine, more powerful than the EZ, which will attach to another pre-built aircraft.

Lange expects that XCOR will build two intermediate rocket-planes before Xerus.

"Our approach is like a ladder: little steps," Lange says. "Persistence is the key. The ride, not the destination, is what matters. It's just a different way of life, an edge, that's what I like."

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