Sunday, 28 September 2003

The X-Prize

From :
In a race to achieve the first privately funded manned spaceflight, two teams of rocket engineers are poised to compete for the $10 million X Prize by launching people to the edge of space and bringing them back safely twice within a two-week period.

Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, said he expects that one of the two teams will launch within the next few months, using rockets and spacecraft that are already being tested and prepared for the daring venture. A Mojave Desert airport in California has already been approved for use as a launch pad for the suborbital missions.

``We expect to have a winner within the next nine to 12 months,'' said Diamandis in a presentation Friday to officials of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The first front-runner (in Alphabetical order) is Armadillo Aerospace, which is using a conventional but shoestring rocket A quote which gives you an idea of how "sealing-wax and bailing-wire" their approach is:
We did some more work on our Russian space suit now that the blown zipper has been repaired....
Nonetheless, I wish them well, and their chances of a safe flight aren't too bad. Probably the same as Gagarin's. After making allowances for the 2nd-hand gear, and the commercial-grade equipment, they're going about things in a professional way. Hell, Wehner Von Braun and Co did more with 1940's vintage gear, and today's standard commercial metallurgy and quality-control is far superior to the best they had then. It's better than the late-50's and early-60's too, which is what Gargarin, Sheppard and so on had to rely on. Glad I'm not riding it though.

The other front-runner is the same mob that built the Voyager, the round–the–world non–stop amateur–built aircraft. That project barely succeeded by the skin of its teeth, but suceed it did. The organisation is Scaled Composites, and they have an X-15–like concept : a manned rocketplane dropped from a Mothership. In concept, less ambitous, but in execution, rather more. I hope they take fewer risks than they did with Voyager.

I doubt the winner will cover their own costs from the prize itself. But commercial endorsements for both winner and runners-up will be worth far more.

Go have a look at the X-prize team list. Those two are the current front-runners, but unforeseen problems could mean that one of the others could get in first. And those are just the contestants who have made it through the entry criteria. UFOs R Us otherwise known as Gravity Control Technologies of Budapest didn't make the cut, despite having some very ambitious designs based on quite possibly valid physical theories. The problem is that, amongst other things, their designs require technologies and materials that don't exist, in fact wholesale leaps in the bounds of Science. And the bulk of it smells suspiciously like snake-oil. Robert Fisk is more credible (though John Pilger less so). If they ever make a series of working models, I'd be very interested. But I think the probability of that is approximately..oh..about..umm.. zero. Yes, zero. Pity. I like the idea of genuine Flying Saucers.

UPDATE : Rocket Man has an interview with John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace.

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