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Homebrew rocketeers race to be first in space

John Powell, at left, and crew carry his rocket to the launch site.

CNN's Don Knapp reports on private attempts to reach space
Windows Media 28K 80K

May 31, 1999
Web posted at: 4:18 p.m. EDT (2018 GMT)

BLACK ROCK DESERT, Nevada (CNN) -- With the United States and Russia working closely together to build a massive space station, its clear that the geopolitical space race is over. But another, less publicized race for the stars is under way in backyards and garages across the United States.

The spoils for the winner: $250,000 and a place in the history books.

The prize money is being offered by the Space Frontier Foundation to the first amateur rocketeer who propels a 4.4 pound (2 kg) payload 124 miles (200 km) into space.

"What we're trying to do is get your average folks out there involved in opening space," says Rick Tumlinson of the Foundation. "As far as we're concerned, space is a place, not a program."

One of the amateur hopefuls is John Powell, who has a novel plan for escaping the bonds of Earth's gravity.

To save fuel, he's using helium balloons to boost his rocket to 100,000 feet before ignition.

"It's so much safer ... there's so much less fuel, it's a much slower process. It's the ideal way to go," he says.

The balloons Powell will use to boost his rocket before ignition.   

But during at attempted launch last weekend over Black Rock Desert, the vulnerability of his plan was exposed by desert winds, which caused a balloon to burst and launch platform to plummet to the ground.

The next day, Powell's team tried again. This time, they launched the rocket, and it set an official altitude record -- above 75,000 feet. But it fell short of a space flight.

Encouraged, Powell says he'll be back on the desert with another rocket within weeks.

Another final frontier contender is Tom Rouse, who will try to get his homebrew rocket into space later this summer.

"I guess you'd call it low-tech," Rouse says of his creation. "Solid rocket fuel's been around since the '50s. We're just using engineering techniques that will minimize failure."

Regardless of the technology used, the Space Frontier Foundation hopes its prize will stimulate creativity and spark new minds to think about the challenges of getting into space cheaply.

Correspondent Don Knapp contributed to this report.

With fanfare, NASA rolls out space plane prototype
April 30, 1999
Contest will send tiny student experiment to Mars
March 25, 1999
Prize money propels record-quests
March 23, 1999
Space entrepreneur may inspire 'rocket boys' for a new millennium
March 1, 1999

The Space Frontier Foundation
JP Aerospace
The Planetary Society
National Space Society
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