The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

The EZ-Rocket soars above the crowd at the Countdown to the X Prize Cup at the Las Cruces, NM airport. (credit: J. Foust)

A day at the space show

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”
— “Nuke” LaLoosh, Bull Durham

Since well before SpaceShipOne captured the $10-million Ansari X Prize a year ago, the X Prize Foundation has been focusing much of its attention on its follow-on effort, the X Prize Cup. Modeled after the air races of the early 20th century, the Cup was intended to encourage X Prize teams not in running to win the prize itself to continue their efforts, helping promote a diversity of technical and operational approaches to passenger suborbital spaceflight. Such a competition, its backers hoped, would also provide a great deal of entertainment value for the public, bringing in sponsorship money and a higher profile in the media.

Those efforts got off to a modest start on Sunday in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with the Countdown to the X Prize Cup and Personal Spaceflight Expo. As the name suggests, this was not the competition promised for the full-fledged X Prize Cup—that will have to wait a few years—but instead an exhibition of the potential of the personal spaceflight industry. However, while the event was not competitive, the day was not without its winners, losers, and those who never got off the ground.

An air show with rockets

If anything, Sunday’s event at Las Cruces International Airport—a grandiose name for a modest general aviation facility about 15 kilometers west of town—was much more like the air shows typically seen at Air Force bases around the country than a spaceflight competition. There were static displays on the ground, flight demonstrations, and even a flight by an F-117 stealth fighter (which was the fastest, and with the exception of some weather balloons the highest-flying, vehicle at the event.) If you didn’t seen the spacecraft models on display on the tarmac, you might have simply thought this was something like a smaller version the Amigo Airsho, taking place the same weekend at an Army airfield an hour’s drive away in El Paso.

“Let me just tell you, it’s a kick in the pants,” Searfoss said of flying the EZ-Rocket.

What set the Countdown to the X Prize Cup apart, and helped set the stage for the future, was the EZ-Rocket. A Long-EZ airplane modified by XCOR Aerospace to carry two of its 1,780-newton (400-lbf.) rocket engines, the EZ-Rocket was originally intended to be a demonstrator of routine, low-cost operations of rocketplanes. The EZ-Rocket is not new—it first flew in 2001—and was actually brought out of retirement to fly in Las Cruces, but nevertheless became the star of Sunday’s show.

The EZ-Rocket took to the skies twice in a pair of flights three hours apart. With former NASA astronaut Rick Searfoss at the controls, the EZ-Rocket spent several minutes in the air each time, passing over the airfield several times before gliding back for a routine landing. “Let me just tell you, it’s a kick in the pants,” Searfoss said in an interview between the two flights. “It’s a wonderful technology demonstrator and a great airplane.”

The flights were not only the high points of the afternoon, they were a triumph for XCOR, which had struggled in the days before the flight to solve an engine relighting problem linked to the area’s high humidity (high, at least, compared to XCOR’s home base in Mojave, California.). “It’s been a mildly stressful last couple of days,” a happy Jeff Greason, XCOR president, said after the second flight.

The flights also offered the audience a taste of the future. Less than a week earlier, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis announced the formation of a new venture, the Rocket Racing League (RRL), that will feature competitive flights by rocket-powered aircraft. “The Rocket Racing League is Indy car racing in the sky,” RRL president and co-founder Granger Whitelaw summarized at a press conference Friday. The first generation of those vehicles will be built by XCOR and be based on the EZ-Rocket. The first RRL race is tentatively set for next year’s X Prize Cup; the Cup will also host the league’s finals in future years. With competitive spaceflights at the X Prize Cup still several years in the future, the RRL will help fill that gap in the near term.

Unhappy landings

Not everything at the X Prize Cup went as smoothly as EZ-Rocket’s flights, though. About an hour after the first EZ-Rocket flight, the crowd’s attention focused on an area between the airport’s runways about half a kilometer away. There Armadillo Aerospace was setting up to conduct the first of three planned low-level flights of its vertical takeoff, vertical landing demonstrator. On cue, the rocket lifted off, hovered several meters above the ground for a few seconds, then slowly descended to the ground—only to tip over on its side upon landing.

As calamitous an event like that might seem—more than a few people recalled the fiery demise of the DC-XA in 1996 when it fell over upon landing—the incident was hardly a catastrophe. The Armadillo crew simply erected the vehicle, checked for any damage, and started preparing the vehicle for its second flight. That flight, though, was scrubbed when they found a propellant leak that could not be repaired before the end of the day.

“We wanted to do a grand finale for the X Prize Cup, so we thought we’d blow our engine up,” Starchaser’s Steve Bennett said as his rocket engine went up in a fireball.

Armadillo team leader John Carmack, in an interview after the flight, explained that an off-center landing, exacerbated by heavy rains the night before that turned the dirt in the area to mud, caused the vehicle to topple. “We had a four-foot by four-foot steel plate that we lifted off from,” Carmack said after the flight. “It set down two feet off from where it lifted off; one foot was on the plate, three feet were in the mud, and it tipped over from that.” He added that despite the landing “I was really quite pleased with how it was handling in the air.”

That incident, though, was minor to what happened later in the day, when British company Starchaser attempted to test a 22,000-newton (5,000-lbf.) liquid oxygen/kerosene rocket engine on a test stand near where the Armadillo test flight took place. An instant after the engine ignited, it exploded in a brilliant fireball straight out of a Hollywood special effects production, with a plume of black smoke trailing away to the east. Firefighters quickly extinguished the fire with no injuries reported.

Starchaser CEO Steve Bennett, on stage to provide play-by-play of the test for the audience, tried to put the best spin possible on the accident. “We wanted to do a grand finale for the X Prize Cup, so we thought we’d blow our engine up,” he quipped as the fireball blazed. The engine, he explained, had worked fine in eight previous tests, and he could not immediately explain what might have caused the accident. “In the world of rocket science you can learn a lot from an anomaly like this.”

Weathering uncertainty

Not everyone who planned to demonstrate vehicles at the event were able to do so. Tripoli Rocketry Association, an amateur high-powered rocketry group, planned to launch three rockets, including a one-third-scale model of a V-2, to altitudes of two to ten kilometers during the Cup. However, winds in excess of 30 km/h scrubbed all three launches, as well as a planned skydiving demonstration to open the event. By the time the event wrapped up, around 5 pm, winds were gusting to over 60 km/h, ripping apart two giant inflatable globes—one of Earth and the other of Mars—in the exhibit area. “Look, Mars just popped!” one boy was heard to exclaim.

In addition to the scrubbed launches, there were other gaps in the schedule. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson was scheduled to speak, but could not attend; Rick Homans, secretary of the state’s Economic Development Department, filled in. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin was also scheduled to appear at the event but did not show. Event organizers filled some of the time with additional interviews on stage or simply repeated announcements of the list of sponsors for the event.

Despite the problems, and the uncertain weather (heavy thunderstorms soaked Las Cruces up until early Sunday morning; more storms were forecast for Sunday but did not materialize) the public came out in force. Attendance estimates ranged from 10,000 to 20,000 people, in line with organizers’ expectations. There were long lines throughout the day at concession stands and many exhibits. The crowd started to thin out, though, after the first EZ-Rocket flight in the early afternoon. By 3:30 pm the longest line at the airport was at the exit, as people queued for shuttle buses to take them to parking lots offsite. Only a relatively small fraction of those 10,000 to 20,000 stayed for the second EZ-Rocket flight or the Starchaser demonstration.

Despite the problems and the uncertain weather the public came out in force. Attendance estimates ranged from 10,000 to 20,000 people, in line with organizers’ expectations.

Such scheduling problems are certainly not unexpected at an event like this, particularly when this is the first time this event has been held. Nonetheless, it was a bit ironic that one of the driving forces for the creation of the X Prize Cup was to create an event that would translate well to television and other media, something that proved difficult during the original X Prize competition. “I could not tell them [TV executives] whether it would happen in Kazakhstan or Ontario or Mojave, and I had no idea when, so consequently it was something that was not television-friendly,” Diamandis said at a Thursday press conference. “That gelled the idea of the X Prize Cup. When we know exactly when and where it’s going to be, that drives the television value tremendously. If anything I am a bottom-line businessman, trying to figure out how to build this industry.”

The media presence at this event was relatively modest, with television coverage primarily provided by local stations. Of course, this event itself was modest compared to the grand visions of the X Prize Cup promoted by event organizers. There’s plenty of room for growth as the so-called “personal spaceflight revolution” gathers momentum in the years to come; Diamandis said Sunday that next’s year expo will be spread out over two days to accommodate additional flights. This year’s event, at the very least, offered a taste of what the future may bring.