The Real Space Race!
For those of us fed up with news of the failure of the 'official', ie, Nasa
space programme, with the explosive re-entry of the Space Shuttle Columbia,
earlier this year, you might want to take heart from those brave
individuals and groups who are trying to win a $10 million prize for the
first private spaceflight, 100km above the Earth's surface, in a reusable
To make it more interesting, or difficult, the homebrew X-Prize winner must
be able to carry three people that distance, twice, and preferably in one
In spite of these difficulties, it seems that several people are willing to
take a crack at this, here are some of their stories...
The man who created 'Doom', and 'Quake', and who is responsible for the
millions of spin-offs, John Carmack, has a nine-strong team working on
their entry, an experimental platform lifted by very precisely computer
controlled Hydrogen peroxide rockets. They are at the early prototype
stage, with a full-sized version still to follow.
The Da Vinci Project:
This Canadian entry uses a hybrid balloon-rocket concept to get into the
higher reaches of space. A helium balloon acts as the first stage, lifting
the 'Wildfire' craft to 24km, whereupon kerosene-powered engines kick in.
The rocket vertically 'launches' at this point, flies into space, and
returns on an experimental parachute. An attempt on the X-Prize is
scheduled for summer 2003.
Never count the Russians out, as space pioneers, Sputnik fans, and
trailblazers of advanced forms of cruelty to animals take their shot at
winning the X-Prize. (Do you *still* think they got Laika back safely?!)
This uses a three-person mini-shuttle 'Cosmopolis-M', piggybacked on a high
altitude M55X spyplane to 20km, at which point, the 'Cosmopolis-M's own
solid rockets take over, burn out, detach, and the spacecraft glides
upwards to the 100km limit. It lands on a runway like a normal aircraft.
This UK-based plan seems to be stuck on the drawing board without much
funding at the moment. It is inspired by the 1960's X-15 spaceplane, and
the 'Ascender' craft would use a dual jet/rocket propulsion system to get
itself to the X-Prize.
A radical but serious contender, as Burt Rutan, the man who put together
the Voyager non-stop global circumnavigating aircraft, plans his entry on
aircraft technology too. A previously developed altitude record holder
aircraft called 'Proteus' will fly up to 11.2km before releasing a
piggybacked rocket plane which flies up to the 100km altitude.
This entry is considered to be the frontrunner for the X-Prize, bearing in
mind that they are an experienced team, and much of the technology for
their X-Prize attempt is already in place and tested.
This second Canadian entry goes back to a murky past, with technology based
on the German WW2 V2 ballistic missile. This operates as a classic two
state rocket, and parachute recovery of the capsule. There is an attempt
scheduled for 2003, but it is debatable if they will make that deadline, as
you just can't get the slave labour to build the thing anymore!
The other UK entry has had a little bit of media coverage, usually when
something he made exploded on a beach somewhere, filmed for the benefit of
the cynical cameras on the hunt for an oddment to fill the end segment of
the evening news. Still, Steve Bennett seems to be getting better at this
rocketry thing, as the 11m tall 'Nova' made a successful test flight, and
the follow-up full-sized prize entry, called 'Thunderbird' will test fly in
Australia sometime this year.
This will utilise a solid rocket booster, with a lox/kerosene engine to
take over in the higher reaches of the flight. If all goes well, the actual
X-Prize flight will take place in October 2004.
Pioneer XP, the entry from this Californian team, uses a rocketplane
concept, with this one able to take off by itself, using conventional jet
engines, then kerosene powered rocket engines higher up. It will land like
a conventional aircraft. The designers include people who were involved in
some of the X-series rocketplanes built by Nasa, and the company has a
track record in developing vehicles to put payloads into orbit. These are
considered a serious X-Prize contender, even though a prototype has yet to
CiH, For Alive Mag,Feb '03