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Space adventurers keep eyes on X-Prize

Plans for the rockets entered in the competition range from traditional to unconventional  

June 9, 2000
Web posted at: 8:53 a.m. EDT (1253 GMT)

In this story:

Gallery of X-Prize contenders

Shoe-string to top flight operations

'Bargain basement' trip to space

Going out in a 'blaze of glory'


(CNN) -- Want to take a trip into space for pocket change? All one need do is win a lottery for a seat on the Starchaser, a proposed rocket vying to become the first private passenger ship in space.

But the Starchaser contest is no sure ticket to the top. The rocket is only one of more than a dozen entrants competing for the X-Prize, which promises a $10 million payout after a spacecraft makes two round trips to the edge of space with three persons aboard.

The X-Prize Foundation has raised more than half of the prize money since its founding in 1996 by a coalition of St. Louis business leaders. The organization's board includes an astronaut and executives with Paramount Studios and First USA, a credit card company providing major backing for the prize, and a lottery of its own for a sub-orbital space flight.

Gallery of X-Prize contenders

"Not only will your savings skyrocket, you could be headed into space. With the X PRIZE Platinum Visa," boasts an ad on the X-Prize Web site.

The foundation draws inspiration from the flurry of aviation prizes in the early 20th century that sent pilots scrambling all over the planet, including a Minnesota farm boy named Charles Lindbergh, who in the Spirit of St. Louis became the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic alone.

"Aviation was thought of as a stunt, not something respectable businessmen did. Within five years of Lindbergh's flight, most people on airplanes were not daredevils but passengers," X-Prize director Gregg Maryniak said.

Seventeen teams have signed up for the X-Prize, with resources and designs as diverse as the countries they represent. The winners must return safely from two trips 62 miles (100 km) high into sub-orbital space.

The most ambitious contenders aim to reach that goal in the next three to five years.

Shoe-string to top flight operations

Dan Goldin
NASA Administrator Dan Goldin speaks at a group of X-Prize competitors in this file image  

Some are shoe-string operations organized by individual amateurs. Others employ stables of well-known rocket scientists that worked for the best national space programs.

With names like the Gauchito, the Lucky Seven and the Green Arrow, the spaceships use conventional runways, rocket launch pads, airplane tows, sea-based sites, parachutes and parafoils for take off or landing.

For propulsion they rely on liquid oxygen, natural gas, kerosene engines, turbo fans, even "blast waves and pulse jets," according to the Diskcraft Company, which has designed a contraption that resembles a plastic flying disc.

The multimillion dollar purse has meant a resumption, of sorts, of the space race between Russia and the United States. A Moscow team, which includes several well-known Russian aerospace engineers, joined the contest late last year, pitting itself against mostly U.S. competitors, as well as others from Argentina and Great Britain.

Starchaser CEO Stephen Bennett came up with the lottery idea to help market his rocket venture. He plans to fly in 2003 aboard the Thunderbird along with a crewmember that wins the contest for the second seat, and another that outright buys the third.

'Bargain basement' trip to space

Steve Bennett, CEO of Starchaser Industries, stands beside the cockpit of his team's Thunderbird rocket  

The outright seat is available "for the bargain basement price of £129,000 U.K. Sterling ($200,000 U.S.)," Bennett's Web site reads. "This place is offered on a first come, first served basis." To buy it, the site continues, one need only "click here."

Hundreds have signed up for the lottery, which costs £1 ($2 U.S.). No one has purchased the seat for sale as of yet, although Bennett said there are several candidates. "We're going to be selective about who takes that seat. We need someone who's not out in the head."

Since his youth, Bennett says, he's dreamed of traveling into space. Toward that end he made small low-cost rockets as an amateur for years. He said the X-Prize has helped legitimize his quest.

"People ask what is the point of that. If I explain there's a $10 million prize at the end, people might subscribe to it."

Bennett now lectures on rocket construction at a university in Manchester, England, and builds small-scale rockets for non-military uses, financed mostly through sponsorship deals.

Setbacks have beset him. In 1995 a rocket fizzled on the launch pad. This month he postponed a test of an emergency escape system until July. He remains confident about his chances.

"A lot of the X-Prize contestants, there's just talk. We're building stuff that physically works," he said.

Bennett said when his ship launches, sponsorship deals, donated goods and services and investors will have paid for all of it.

"Basically we're going to have a big party with that (the prize money)," he said.

Regardless of which team proves victorious, the nascent space tourism industry should become a major winner too when the X-Prize is claimed, according to contest organizers.

"Our purpose was to change the way people view space flight," said Maryniak, who predicts low-cost reusable vehicles will usher in an era of space tourism within a generation.

"We think within five years, people will understand it's something we can do. At first it will be expensive. Then it become something average people can do."

Going out in a 'blaze of glory'

Others agree. Astronaut legend Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, has formed the non-profit group ShareSpace to promote mass tourism in space. Robert Bigelow, the owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, plans to invest $500 million to develop technology for an orbiting hotel.

And more than 100 people have paid Space Adventures almost $100,000 each to reserve seats on a flight to sub-orbital space, when a reusable launch vehicle becomes available.

Some express skepticism about the outlook for space tourism. "Business is risky and space is unusually risky," said John Pike, director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists.

"Any of these companies will have a hard time staying in business after the first accident. Customers will stay away in droves. Investors will stay away in droves."

For X-Prize contestants, the dangers are even greater.

"All of them run the risk that new launch vehicles have high infant mortality. That is, the first ones tend to blow up," he said.

Besides losing the prize, rocket crewmembers could easily lose their lives in the event of a crash or explosion.

"It is the nature of such prizes to be dangerous. It is the latest in a glorious tradition of dangerous prizes," Pike said. "I assume anyone who goes up in one of these contraptions has reconciled themselves to the possibility that they might go out in a blaze of glory."

First privately funded manned space mission blasts off for Mir
April 4, 2000
NASA exec suggests ways to build a better space shuttle
April 7, 2000
All eyes on the future as Space Symposium convenes in Colorado
April 4, 2000
'X' marks the future: NASA moves forward with space-planes
August 24, 1999
NASA's rocket-plane takes first test ride
June 29, 1999

X PRIZE Foundation
Space Adventures, Ltd.
Share Space Foundation
Federation of American Scientists

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