Will David beat Goliath into space?
On Monday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that its first post-Columbia shuttle launch is scheduled between March 11 and April 6.
Yet as the agency prepares to resume shuttle flights following the Feb. 1 loss of Columbia, 24 teams from seven countries are racing to become the first nongovernment group to launch humans into space. The winner nets $10 million, a shiny trophy, and a place in aerospace history.
Founders of the X Prize, as the competition is known, hope to accelerate the day when the only thing limiting everyman's access to space is a few thousand dollars and a willingness to strap into the passenger seat and enjoy - or endure - the ride.
"We're really trying to change the public's perception of spaceflight," says Byron Lichtenberg, a former NASA astronaut and a founding member of the X Prize. "Instead of being a huge government program with a few select NASA astronauts, or Russians, or someone who has $20 million to fly, we want to try to change the culture where people believe they can go into space."
Entrants range from the expert to the quixotic. At one end of the scale sits Steven McGrath of Bridgewater, Mass. Mr. McGrath, who signed up in May and has been working in the construction industry for the past five years, is currently "undergoing self-training in rocketry design and deep-space propulsion." At the other end sits noted aircraft designer and pilot Burt Rutan, whose company, Scaled Composites, in Mojave, Calif., rolled out his complete flight system in April.
Somewhere in the middle sits the Canadian da Vinci Project team, headed by Brian Feeney, an aerospace engineer, whose 200 volunteers have put more than 100,000 man-hours into the project. The team's launch system is built around a rocket suspended beneath a large balloon. The balloon carries the rocket to 80,000 feet and releases the craft. The rocket's liquid-fueled engines then send it to the 62 mile altitude. After reentry, a steerable parachute brings it back to Earth.
Spaceflight, Mr. Freeney says, has been his dream since childhood. "I made my first gunpowder when I was in the sixth grade and made model rockets" for years afterward, he says. So far, his effort has received $5 million in contributions and in-kind donations from software and aerospace firms, he says. The team is negotiating for a $25 million liability- insurance policy. And he says he anticipates receiving soon the first government approval for any team to conduct a launch.
"This is all about breaking down psychological barriers," he says. "We're not trying to develop better technologies. But we are trying to open up the field" of spaceflight in ways NASA and other national space agencies have been unable or unwilling to do.
"So far, we've had very few rolling eyeballs," among people who learn about his team's effort, he says. And during the past two years, he adds, corporate sponsors have shown an increasing willingness to back his team's effort.
Meanwhile, in the US, the Federal Aviation Administration is weighing two launch-license applications and is expecting a third soon for craft "that could be used" for the competition, according to spokesman Chuck Kline. "We've been working with a number of the contestants" to help them factor federal licensing requirements into their plans, he says.
X Prize Foundation President Peter Diamandis said in April he expects to see the first attempts within 12 months. When asked during a recent phone interview if any of the teams had given the foundation the required four month's confidential advanced notice of a launch, he pauses briefly, then replies: "I can't say."
By Jan. 1, 2005, a winning team will have to have launched twice within two weeks and carried three humans, or one human and enough ballast to equal two others. The people must land safely and the launch system's components must survive intact enough to allow the two-week turnaround. The goal is to reach an altitude of 62 miles - roughly the altitude Alan Shepherd reached during the first Mercury mission in 1961.
In the end, Mr. Diamandis says, the prize hopes to foster space tourism as part of a larger commercial market. The foundation is also looking to establish an annual competition similar to the venerable Oshkosh Air Show or the Formula 1 races, which spur developments in aircraft and automobiles. As that becomes a regular event, he says he hopes that TV revenues and income from corporate sponsors will allow the foundation to funnel more money into developing cheaper, more reliable reusable rockets for people and cargo.
John Hansman, an aerospace engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, is cautious about commercial viability, however.
In student design competitions aimed at meeting the X Prize's objectives, he notes that while students come up with intriguing designs for spacecraft, their business plans look less promising.
"There is a question about whether the mission" of up-and-down suborbital flight "is sufficiently thrilling" to generate much of a tourism market, compared with a less-risky trip in planes that fly parabolic patterns so that passengers can experience weightlessness, he says.
In one sense, the X Prize's latest board of trustees member, Dennis Tito, already has lifted the space-tourism bar high above suborbital space. In 2001, Mr. Tito became the first "space tourist," with his $20 million ticket to ride a Russian Soyuz spacecraft up to the International Space Station.
"It will be hard for anyone interested in space tourism to match his trip," Dr. Hansman says.
Still, he tips his hat to competitors. "It's very hard to do what they are trying to do without a NASA-like level of investment," he says, adding that it keeps the goal of broader access to space on the public agenda.
Indeed, the prize's founders see it as only a first step toward making orbital flight a reality for the public. Noting that it took time for technology to evolve from that used by Charles Lindbergh during his transatlantic solo flight - itself a competition entry - to the venerable DC-3, the da Vinci Project's Freeney says, "I suspect you'll see us move up the scale" from suborbital to orbital flights in 10 to 15 years.