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Science & Space

Space race contender sets launch date

By Tariq Malik
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Brian Feeney, leader of Canada's da Vinci Project , speaks in front of Wild Fire, the project's space vehicle.
Brian Feeney, leader of Canada's da Vinci Project , speaks in front of Wild Fire, the project's space vehicle.
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TORONTO, Canada (SPACE.com) -- A second team of rocketeers competing for the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a contest for privately funded suborbital space flight, has officially announced the first launch date for its manned rocket.

The da Vinci Project, led by Brian Feeney of Toronto, Ontario, said Thursday the group plans to loft its Wild Fire Mark VI spacecraft on October 2, just days after the planned launch of another X Prize contender, the U.S-based SpaceShipOne. The balloon-launched Wild Fire event will be followed by a second launch within two weeks to snag the X Prize purse, according to the plan.

"We want to win the X Prize, we've got a very good shot of winning the X Prize, we are determined to win the X Prize," Feeney said during today's announcement at Wild Fire's Downsview Airport hangar. "The most important thing is that we compete."

Feeney's announcement comes on the heels of a July 27 launch-timetable announcement by the backers of SpaceShipOne, a rocket ship built by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his Mojave, California firm Scaled Composites. SpaceShipOne is slated to make its X Prize flights beginning on Sept. 29.

"Today is a historic day," said Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the St. Louis, Missouri-based Ansari X Prize Foundation, during today's press event. "When you have one space ship, you have a test flight, when you have two, you have a horse race."

X Prize contestants are required to give 60 days notice -- Feeney's team gave it three days ago -- before making their two-flight attempt in order to win the $10 million. Teams must successfully demonstrate their vehicle's ability to launch three humans to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers), return them safely, then repeat the feat within two weeks with the same spacecraft.

More than 20 teams from around the worlds have registered for the competition.

Racing SpaceShipOne

The competition between SpaceShipOne and Wild Fire is fierce, especially after the much publicized first suborbital flight of SpaceShipOne on June 21. That flight was not an X Prize qualifying one. And da Vinci team members are confident they are still in the game.

"It's very exciting," said Doug Gellatly, a Toronto accountant who has spent two years volunteering with the da Vinci team. "I'm so looking forward to the launch."

At the time of the SpaceShipOne announcement, Feeney publicly disclosed today's rollout but acknowledged that his team was still $500,000 short of the funds needed for launch. Since then, the effort has found a new title sponsor, the online casino firm Golden Palace.com, which has pushed the effort forward. In honor of that, the da Vinci Project has been renamed the Golden Palace.com Space Program powered by the da Vinci Project.

Feeney himself will pilot the first flight of his team's rocket ship, dubbed Wild Fire Mark VI, which is to be staged from above team's launch site in Kindersley, a town in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

"This is something he's always wanted to do," Brian's mother, Joan Feeney, said. "We didn't really quite understand it at first, but we support him."

The 8,500-pound Wild Fire spacecraft will also carry the weight of two additional people -- X Prize vehicles must be able to launch three humans -- as well as an eight-track tape, a laptop computer and a ball kicked by famed soccer player David Beckham. Kindersley residents have affectionately dubbed their town Cape Kindersley.

Balloon launch to space

Like SpaceShipOne, Wild Fire is launched high above the Earth after hitching a ride with a mother ship. But where SpaceShipOne one is carried under the belly of a parent airplane, Wild Fire is towed with the world's largest reusable helium balloon.

Wild Fire's current flight plan calls for its wide balloon to fly up to an altitude of 80,000 feet (24,384 meters) with the spacecraft dangling by a cable about 750 feet below the balloon's crew quarters. From balloon top to rocket bottom, the entire assembly measures about 1,000 feet.

Meanwhile, officials in Kindersley are preparing the agricultural town of 5,000 residents for Wild Fire's flight. The town's website not only highlights the merits of Cape Kindersley, but also lists supposed launch times -- between 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. to avoid high winds -- and offers viewing information for both of Wild Fire's X Prize qualifying flights.

"It's going to be one hell of a ride," Feeney said.



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