The Space Review
Waiting for Launch ebook

 
X Prize vehicle mockups
While some of the losing X Prize teams are still actively developing vehicles today, others have disappeared from view. (credit: J. Foust)

X Prize losers: still in the race, not doing anything, or too seXy for the X Cup?

This time last year there were 26 teams in a worldwide competition for the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Sort of.

There were 26 teams on the roster, with varying degrees of seriousness, mostly determined by funding levels. No surprise, the winner was the best-financed team. Burt Rutan was first to enter the contest back in 1996, but he didn’t begin to build his space program until years later, when he partnered up with Paul Allen in Mojave Aerospace Ventures. Now Rutan is founding a spaceship factory with Virgin’s Richard Branson in Mojave, California, and still serves as CEO at Scaled Composites, which is back to business as usual, designing, testing and flying things for a mix of private and government customers. Last October when somebody asked if he would travel to New Mexico for the X Prize Cup, Rutan laughed. “X Prize? Didn’t I just win that?” Then he cast an impatient glance at the sky, possibly thinking about orbit, if not beyond.

Some were fantasy projects, and a few may have been outright spoofs. But… how many of the X Prize teams were only one beneficent billionaire away from giving Burt Rutan a run for the trophy?

There’s been no word of a change in sentiment about attending this year’s event, officially titled “Countdown to the X Prize Cup & Personal Spaceflight Expo,” to distinguish it from the actual X Prize Cup & Personal Spaceflight Expo envisioned for the future. Crews of overqualified volunteers laboring under the auspices of the X Prize Foundation have constructed six full-scale mock-ups of SpaceShipOne. The real thing was delivered to the Smithsonian and will be installed in the Air and Space Museum the first week of October, on the anniversary of its final space flight. One of the non-flying, fiberglass replicas will be in New Mexico to recall the glory days and represent the winning team—even if the team itself is already too sexy for the X Cup.

Of the other 25 teams, X Prize chairman Peter Diamandis told Aerospace America (August 2005), “Two-thirds are not doing anything, but eight or 10 are.”

Not doing anything. What does that mean? Not doing anything to advance the Personal Spaceflight Revolution Dr. Diamandis wants to jumpstart? Or truly not doing anything? Which invites another question: How many were doing anything ever? Some were fantasy projects, and a few may have been outright spoofs. But… how many of the X Prize teams were only one beneficent billionaire away from giving Burt Rutan a run for the trophy?

Quite a few promising and hope-inspiring new space launch companies never signed up for the original X Prize: SpaceX, with actual rockets on the pad and paying customers; t/Space, building and testing hardware on small NASA contracts meant for paper studies; JP Aerospace, whose Airship To Orbit will travel to space without rockets; and Blue Origin, because they’re just so darn mysterious. The list of no-shows is long, but it’s not this list.

The entire future of personal spaceflight does not rest on the shoulders of Burt Rutan and the X Prize losers. Still, it makes you wonder: which eight or ten X Prize teams are doing anything, and what are they doing? Are they any closer to building real suborbital space programs? Of the last known 25 teams, only seven are featured in the glossy brochure you can download from XPcup.com.

Progress in the US

From the US, there’s Armadillo Aerospace of Texas, the first to announce it would participate in the follow-on event, when John Carmack mentioned that Armadillo would be paid to fly its vertical lander demonstrator. Carmack imagines a time in the not-so-distant future when you can load a personal spaceship in the back of a pickup truck and drive out to the range for blast-off. After a perfect landing, load it in the pickup and head home. It might sound like a Texas joke, but he’s serious. Armadillo is a rocket hobby group gone wild, conquering space in their spare time and actually making progress because they can afford supplies, thanks to Carmack’s success in the game business. He’s not a billionaire, and mere multi-millionaires can’t afford to buy whole space transportation systems, so he’s taking a do-it-yourself approach.

Armadillo is a rocket hobby group gone wild, conquering space in their spare time and actually making progress because they can afford supplies, thanks to Carmack’s success in the game business.

Rocketplane of Oklahoma is the only other holdover from the US. If they keep to schedule, they’ll fly their first test flights in late 2006. That would make them the second… no wait, I was going to say the second privately financed passenger ship to space, but Rocketplane is partly financed by the taxpayers of Oklahoma. Whatever. That X Prize rule was too hard to follow anyway. Wally Funk, one of the original Mercury 13 women tossed out of the astronaut program and the first woman accident investigator for the FAA, may co-pilot an early test flight of Rocketplane’s XP, a classic Lear jet pimped out with new delta wing and rocket engine. Astronaut John Herrington, NASA’s first Native American in space, recently jumped ship to become Rocketplane’s chief test pilot.

Also from the US but new to the X Prize is XCOR Aerospace, the Mojave outfit descended from the aftermath of Rotary Rocket Company. (Rotary was second to sign up for the X Prize, right after Burt Rutan, and first to drop out—too sexy for the X Prize even way back then.) XCOR never entered the contest because of the rule prohibiting government-funded technology, since their strategy is to pursue any and all R&D contracts that advance their own goals. Now the contest is over and there are no such rules, XCOR is dusting off its EZ-Rocket, a rocket-powered Rutan kit plane that was used as a flying test bed for propulsion development. XCOR will be part of the show, but it’s not one of the eight or 10 in question.

Beyond US borders

Both Canadian contenders made it into the brochure. The da Vinci Project has been keeping a low profile, after selling tickets then not showing up for a launch date in Saskatchewan last year. (Come to think of it, where’s my souvenir launch package?) Team founder Brian Feeney has said he’s working on a new design: a six-passenger winged space plane called Tiger Shark. For the X Prize Cup exhibition, da Vinci will drop test something it probably doesn’t need anymore.

Canadian Arrow, the V-2 revivalists, have a new partner in PlanetSpace and a launch site in Meaford, Ontario, where Geoff Sheerin says they expect to fly next fall if they can clear bureaucratic hurdles. Meanwhile, they’ll bring a mockup to show in New Mexico.

The da Vinci Project has been keeping a low profile, after selling tickets then not showing up for a launch date in Saskatchewan last year.

The other three teams featured in the X Cup brochure hail from beyond North America. The UK’s Starchaser signed a lease at New Mexico’s spaceport and plans to fire a rocket engine on a static test stand to entertain the crowd. The Romanian team ARCA will present a mockup of a new winged spaceplane called Orizont. Argentine Pablo De Leon is a professor and researcher at University of North Dakota, an expert in spacesuits but not believed to be building spaceships at this time. Starchaser, ARCA, and De Leon Technologies have all been known to launch rockets toward space, but none will do so at X Prize Cup.

The rockets will be amateur class, launched by Tripoli Rocketry Association members, and Eggs-Prize class, launched by school kids.

Other ventures

Of the remaining 18 teams not on the program for X Cup, who else is doing anything? Three whose video interviews can still be seen on the X Prize webcast archive didn’t make it into the brochure.

Phillip Storm and Eric Meier of Space Transport Corp., whose most memorable test launch exploded mid-air and washed mannequin parts up on the beach, auctioned off the contents of their Forks, Washington, rocket shop in February and said they were going into hibernation. They’ve been so quiet ever since that you might suspect they’re up to something.

Randa Milliron of Interorbital Systems said she was not contacted by X Cup organizers, and she thinks she knows why. “It’s because we’re focused on orbital, and they’re all about suborbital, parabolic flights, that kind of stuff,” she said, a tad dismissive. On a Saturday in June at the Mojave Test Area shared by Pacific Rocket Society and Reaction Research Society, she was poring over ancient treasures: salvaged NASA specs for Skylab’s original “wet workshop” configuration. She said potential customers and investors had materialized after a Parade Magazine article featuring Interorbital’s plans. Anyway, you can’t surf-launch a rocket from New Mexico. No surf.

Randa Milliron of Interorbital Systems said she was not contacted by X Cup organizers, and she thinks she knows why. “It’s because we’re focused on orbital, and they’re all about suborbital, parabolic flights, that kind of stuff.”

Huntsville, Alabama, team HARC will rise again. Another hobby group turned intermittently pro, High Altitude Research Corp’s eleventh-hour entry coulda been a contender but for the lack of a low-budget Paul Allen. Meanwhile, they keep their day jobs, here and there in the rocket and missile business, mostly. Team leader Tim Pickens heads up Orion Propulsion, the company he founded after serving in Mojave at the dawn of Burt Rutan’s space program. Orion builds hardware, does consulting, invents things, and actually makes a living in the rocket business, something that’s not all that common for an X Prize loser. Looking to the future, Orion proposed a novel bat-winged Fly-Back Booster to the Air Force for a hybrid launch vehicle. Now that the Air Force study program is delayed, HARC is thinking of developing a scaled-down version for the thrill ride market. Meanwhile, HARC is working on a spaceport attraction-slash-research vehicle that’s a rocket-launched capsule to “near space” with parachute recovery and lunar-lander-like legs. (This just in: Both HARC and Orion Propulsion will field exhibits at the Countdown to X Prize Cup. Gentlemen, start your rocket bikes.)

That’s already ten, Dr. Diamandis’ high estimate for teams doing anything. This math is not working out. Several other teams or their descendants have been sighted at X Cup pow-wows and New Mexico spaceport round tables. Mike Kelly now works for the X Prize Foundation as the in-house technical expert for operations in New Mexico. His Kelly Space & Technology team stayed on the roster long after his company went bankrupt. His design, air-towing a rocket-powered plane to launch altitude, was successfully demonstrated years ago. Making the business end fly turned out to be more of a challenge.

TGV Rockets of Oklahoma won an X Prize-sized contract from the Department of Defense back in the summer of 2004, without ever flying to space. TGV’s task is to improve suborbital operations for defense intelligence needs: eyes, not guys, in the skies. TGV stands for Two Guys and a Van, and they aim to revive the abandoned DC-X on a beer budget. Founder Pat Bahn is openly unconvinced about the near-term market for human payloads, so TGV may be off the X Prize radar, but not exactly not doing anything.

American Astronautics, very quiet while the contest was on, afterward morphed into AeraSpace, then AeraSpaceTours, and announced a deal with the Air Force to launch its six-passenger Altairis from Cape Canaveral. Cheap rocket pioneer Robert Truax was on the original team roster for American Astronautics, and X Prize team leader Bill Sprague appeared in AeraSpace’s early publicity video, but now he’s absent from the latest version of the website. The company is focused on courting investors—but, hey, no aspersions. It’s key.

Bristol Spaceplanes’ David Ashford from the UK and PanAero‘s Len Cormier in Virginia are two X Prize team leaders whose perfectly reasonable spaceships have languished for years as designs and test articles. A sleek space cab, a kite plane to orbit… they’re not exactly fantasies, but without funding they might as well be.

Suborbital Corporation’s Cosmopolis XXI entry was the brainchild of Space Adventures‘ man in Moscow, Sergey Kostenko. Since Dr. Diamandis is a founder and principal investor in Space Adventures, and Space Adventures is a major sponsor of the X Prize, it’s possible that Suborbital was more window-dressing than serious competition. Meanwhile, Kostenko has been busy booking tourists on Soyuz flights to International Space Station, and he’ll have a customer in orbit during the New Mexico events. Far from not doing anything, this “team” falls into the category of Too Sexy for the X Cup.

IL Aerospace no longer exists, at least in public. The contestants from Israel with their evolved Rockoon may or may not be doing anything. Does even the X Prize know for sure?

Funtech always had the flavor of a fantasy project, two guys from Lockheed building a sporty space plane from pixels and sims. Fundamental Technology partners Ray Neilsen and Jim Toole contributed crucial flight navigation systems to SpaceShipOne, so at least some of their work product made it to space before they closed up shop and scrubbed the Funtech website.

A sleek space cab, a kite plane to orbit… they’re not exactly fantasies, but without funding they might as well be.

Advent Launch Services has also gone missing from the web, and when last visible it was in dire need of an update. But before consigning Advent to the not-doing-anything category, see page 13 of the July/August 2005 issue of AIAA Horizons (Houston), where team leader Jim Akkerman calls for volunteers and hopes to find investors to rekindle Advent’s dream of ocean-launching a civilian astronaut corps.

Micro-Space team leader Richard Speck also recruits volunteers on the forums at xprizenews.org and pitches budget-conscious mission concepts there, like a one-way midget to Mars, a goldfish to Mars, a reality show that ends on, you guessed it, Mars. Micro-Space’s website still exists, funky as ever, but it’s hard to take them all that seriously. Speck’s only recent public appearance was at a science fiction convention. If they turn out to be a spoof perpetrated by the Mars Underground, it won’t be a huge shock.

Vanguard has flown amateur class rockets and created some impressive website graphics of future space systems, but the lack of news and progress reports gives the distinct impression of no news or progress from Steve McGrath’s all-volunteer team.

Lone Star Space drifted away from the contest without ever officially dropping out. The same was true for three teams who never got around to building websites, Acceleration Engineering, Flight Exploration and Discraft. Not doing anything might be the reason.

Then again… Discraft’s pulse-jet-powered flying saucer may swoop down from the sky and surprise everybody at some future X Prize Cup & Personal Spaceflight Expo. You never know.


Home

Subscribe

Enter your email address below to be notified when new articles are published:


ISPCS 2014