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Allison and Pickens
HARC president Greg Allison (left) and Liberator program manager Tim Pickens discuss some of the features of the Liberator. (credit: J. Foust)

A closer look at the Liberator

<< page 1: Liberator details

Development plans

It’s one thing to say how your vehicle will fly, it’s another thing entirely to actually fly it. Allison and Pickens outlined their plans to build and test the Liberator, using a mix of existing and new hardware. HARC plans to have a flight-ready Liberator capsule ready by mid-2004. That capsule will be initially launched unmanned on a smaller single-engine booster, on display Saturday, that will carry it to 30 kilometers to test some of the capsule’s key design attributes. “It’ll be just like the Little Joe they did back in the Apollo days,” said Pickens, referring to the small rocket used to launch the Apollo command module on suborbital test flights.

Assuming that test flight is successful, HARC will move on to unmanned tests using the larger two-engine booster. Pickens said the company is currently planning four “full-blown” unmanned test flights by late 2004. If successful, and if the X Prize is still available, HARC will then fly the two manned flights required for the prize, using a single pilot and dummy mass to simulate the two passengers.

Carrying out those test flights is contingent on obtaining the required funding. Allison estimates that the project has raised the equivalent of $5 million to date, counting the value of donations and volunteer labor as well as money from several local investors. He estimates that HARC needs to raise another $9.5 million to carry it through the X Prize flights. “I’m very confident that we can get the money we need,” said Allison.

“I’m very confident that we can get the money we need,” said Allison.

Once the money is raised, it should be possible to quickly move into the development and testing phase of the Liberator. “If we can secure the funding, then we can make it,” said Pickens. “We will spool up very quickly.” Allison noted that while HARC has been “kicking around” the concept for about a year, it only really started coming together in the last three months.

HARC also recently became the latest official X Prize team, joining about two dozen other teams that previously registered. HARC was quietly added to the list of teams on X Prize web site last week, along with a press release announcing Saturday’s demonstration. Gregg Maryniak, X Prize executive director, confirmed at the demonstration that HARC was officially registered as a team. He also suggested that, even at this late date, HARC may not be the last team to join, hinting that there may be one or more other teams out there quietly developing their vehicles and waiting for the right moment to join the competition.

Focus on safety and economics

One of the key themes of the Liberator event was HARC’s emphasis on safety. “I feel like we put together a design for a vehicle that is safer than any X Prize vehicle out there today,” claimed Pickens. “Our first priority is passenger safety, followed closely by passenger comfort,” added Allison.

That emphasis on safety takes shape in several ways. For example, Pickens noted that the Liberator’s engines will run at 1,700 kilopascals, compared to chamber pressures in excess of 20,600 kPa found in the space shuttle’s main engines. This lower pressure translates into far safer operations. “You can imagine something coming apart at 3000 psi [20,600 kPa],” said Pickens. “It’s a bomb, literally.” The Liberator’s propellant tanks will also be made of 1.25-cm thick aluminum, providing additional safety margins.

Should something happen to the engines on the ground or during flight, the Liberator capsule is equipped with hybrid rocket engines in its nose designed to carry the capsule safely away from the booster—at least 1.5 kilometers from the launch pad. Even without the escape tower, Pickens said, it would still be possible for the crew to be safe in the event of an engine failure or explosion on the ground. “You could never have that with a modern launch vehicle,” he said.

“No other team chasing the X Prize, in my mind, is serious about the commercialization of that potential because they’re not looking at what it takes to really be safe for the passengers,” Allison claimed.

The emphasis for safety includes the reentry and landing phase of the flight. The capsule will be equipped with both a primary and a secondary parachute. Should both those fail, each crewmember will be equipped with a parachute and can bail out of the capsule. Allison said the crew could reduce the speed of the capsule before bailing out using the speed brakes and using maneuvers like s-curves.

Why the strong emphasis on safety? Allison said that the perception of safety is critical to the eventual commercial success of manned suborbital spaceflight. “No other team chasing the X Prize, in my mind, is serious about the commercialization of that potential because they’re not looking at what it takes to really be safe for the passengers,” he claimed.

“The only reason to do this is for fun,” said Pickens. “How are you going to have any fun if people are getting hurt?”

Another critical factor in the eventual commercial success of such vehicles is economics. Pickens believes that the Liberator is a much more economical vehicle than SpaceShipOne, Scaled Composites’ X Prize entry that Pickens previously helped design. A key difference between the two is that while Liberator uses a conventional liquid-propellant engine, SpaceShipOne uses a hybrid engine that combines a liquid oxidizer, nitrous oxide, with a solid fuel, rubber. “I think the recurring costs to operate that engine could very well be $75,000 to $100,000,” he said. “We’re building a vehicle here that will cost about $6,000 a flight in propellants. That’s a big difference.”

The Rocket City team

Another factor that HARC hopes will positively set itself apart from the competition is the community. Working in Huntsville, with its high concentration of engineering talent and resources, should make it easier for the team to find what it needs to make the project a success, Allison and Pickens believe. “It’s the support of the community that really counts here,” said Allison. “That’s what’s going to make this team unique, and this is how and why we’re going to win.”

“The resources available to us here in Huntsville are second to none,” Allison added. “We have a community that’s behind us, we have assets in this community that we can use. We all know each other, and we all pull for each other. This is a close-knit community.”

“It’s really great to see the kind of community support this team is getting,” said Maryniak. “We were hoping that the Rocket City would have a rocket of its own, and our dream of a Rocket City team has come true.”

“I think the time is right, and Huntsville is the right place to do this,” said Pickens. “There’s a lot of smart people here in town. Huntsville’s a great place to do this. We see our company providing jobs for the future. We also see us putting Huntsville manned spaceflight back on the map.”

If, in fact, HARC can triumph over both considerable obstacles and stiff competition to win the X Prize, they will indeed put Huntsville back on the spaceflight map, and let the Rocket City live up to its name.