The Sciences

The X-Prize

Does anyone hear Charles Lindbergh chuckling?

By Marshall Jon Fisher and David E FisherJul 1, 2002 5:00 AM


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How to win $10 million:step 1. Build a rocket shipstep 2. Shoot it up 62 miles (with three people onboard)step 3. Repeat two weeks later

Less than a year from now, Brian Feeney intends to strap himself inside a Toyota-size rocket ship tethered beneath a helium balloon and float up to 80,000 feet. Then he will blast off, reach an apogee of 75 miles, and fall back to Earth as the rocket opens up like a giant shuttlecock to slow his descent. If he lives through it, and if he can repeat the feat within two weeks, he will win the X-Prize, a $10 million reward offered to the first civilian to fly a rocket into space. The Feeney project, dubbed da Vinci, is one of over 20 such attempts under way around the world. And Feeney's effort has already generated considerable advance excitement: A prototype of the da Vinci rocket is proudly displayed in the Toronto Aerospace Museum. The design is based on solid engineering and good science, and Feeney projects the confidence of another, more famous aviator from an earlier epoch of flight. "I've been eating and drinking rocket fuel all my life," says the 43-year-old, sitting in his office, enthusiastically reciting pressure densities, thermal loads, terminal velocities, the history of rocketry—and details of Charles Lindbergh's life. "What we're all trying to do is to build a suborbital Spirit of St. Louis." The references to Lindbergh are not casual. The X-Prize was inspired by the visionary Orteig Prize, which prompted Lindbergh and many others to try to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane at a time when the vast majority of people saw flying as a daredevil activity. In the years after World War I, most pilots had to resort to barnstorming to make a living, flying from town to town and offering short rides to adventurous souls. But in 1919 Raymond Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. On May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh took off from Long Island. When he landed in Paris 331/2 hours later, the world went wild. More important than the fame of one man was the dramatic change in attitude that followed Lindbergh's achievement: If he could step into a tiny single-engine airplane and cross a great ocean, flying must be a lot safer than anyone thought. Suddenly, everyone wanted to take to the skies. The number of pilots in the United States tripled in 1928, the number of airplanes quadrupled, and the number of passengers on airliners went up by a factor of 30. The golden age of aviation had begun, and a lot of it had to do with the $25,000 Orteig prize. Flash ahead to 1995. Peter Diamandis, a space medicine specialist with degrees from Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's aerospace engineering program, is taking flying lessons. For inspiration, his friend Gregg Maryniak, an aerospace expert, gives him an old copy of Lindbergh's book The Spirit of St. Louis. When Diamandis reads it, he tells his friend: "This is what we need to get human spaceflight unstuck! We need a space prize."

Reaching for the stars, Canadian rocketeer Brian Feeney insists that his sleek da Vinci will be the first privately funded spacecraft to touch space and return safely.

Private Dreams

Struck by the faded glory of the U.S. space program since the last men walked on the moon, Diamandis had become concerned about the future of human exploration. NASA had fallen prey to budget cutting, yet the cost of putting each pound of payload into Earth orbit still hovered above $10,000. Only governments could afford that. Diamandis and Maryniak believed private commercial interests could do it cheaper. After bringing astronaut Byron Lichtenberg to their cause, the three enlisted a group of St. Louis businessmen and others to form the New Spirit of St. Louis Organization. The group is similar in spirit to the St. Louis group who more than 75 years ago offered a young mail pilot the backing he needed to build an airplane that could conquer the Atlantic. The prize money was raised in part by minimum-$25,000 donations from NSSL members—mostly philanthropists, investors, bankers, and such miscellaneous space enthusiasts as author Tom Clancy. The major funding has come from aerospace entrepreneurs and organizations like First USA Bank, the Danforth Foundation, and science museums. Their next step was to define the challenge. Going to the moon was out of the question. "Imagine," Maryniak says, "if in 1904 the Daily Mail had offered a prize for the first person to fly 6,000 miles, say from London to Los Angeles, instead of 18 miles across the English Channel. Impossible! No one would have tried. But taken in steps, they flew across the Channel, and then from London to Manchester, and only after that did they fly across the Atlantic." Even a full orbital flight seemed too big a leap. So they settled on an altitude above the official definition of where space begins, at 50 miles above Earth, still low enough to be achievable within a decade. The X-Prize, they announced in 1996, would be awarded to the first private spaceship capable of lifting three people to a suborbital altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles) on two consecutive flights within two weeks. The rules stipulate a contestant must be able to carry two passengers besides the pilot, but their weight equivalent can be carried instead. To win, the effort must be privately financed. The 20-odd teams that have taken up the challenge include a contemporary aviation hero in California, a WWII Navy pilot in Washington, and aerospace experts in Russia, Argentina, and England. Most of the teams include people who had been working on commercial space travel long before the X-Prize was conceived and have chosen to develop either a unique high-altitude aircraft or a ballistic rocket. "The winner of the X-Prize," Diamandis says, "will permanently open the door for passenger travel into space and lead to the development of a new generation of low-cost, commercial spaceships." Many competitors believe the days of suborbital space tourism, ultrarapid transcontinental mail, and under-two-hour passenger travel between any two points on Earth are feasible in the near future. For Feeney, who appears to be the front-runner to make the first launch, the X-Prize provided inspiration to follow a childhood dream. "I was in sixth grade when I made my first rockets," he says, recalling how he and a friend filled cigar tubes with homemade gunpowder and launched them—or, more often, created an explosion. "Watching the moonwalk from suburban Toronto, I knew that someday I had to go into space." A college dropout, he started his first aerospace business, finding new applications for space-suit designs, in 1984 at the age of 25. In the 1990s he decided to change his life, moving to Hong Kong and working as an industrial design consultant. Then the X-Prize changed everything for him again. He began working on it the week it was announced, he says, "putting pen to paper and evolving suborbital flight ideas." Despite his background, he knew he lacked wide-ranging know-how, so he moved back to Toronto, where he began assembling a talented team of true experts. Feeney decided to gather as many volunteers around him as he could—more than 150 engineers, aerospace professionals, mathematicians, and accountants. He even enlisted Bill Lishman, the sculptor and ultralight-aircraft designer who inspired Fly Away Home, the 1996 film about his attempt to help a group of orphan geese learn to migrate. If Feeney's team wins the X-Prize, he will divide the $10 million among these volunteers. The da Vinci Project has also succeeded in getting aerospace organizations to volunteer equipment and expertise: The display technology and much of the avionics equipment onboard is by Omnivex, the pilot's space suit is from Nuytco Research, the spaceflight training is courtesy of the Canadian Defense and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine, and legal representation is pro bono from Blake, Cassels & Graydon, Canada's oldest and one of its most prestigious law firms. Money is still the biggest hurdle in any kind of spaceflight and remains the greatest challenge facing all X-Prize competitors. Technically, the X-Prize conditions for space travel have been met before, but only with massive government funding. NASA and agencies from other countries have sent up countless orbital flights in mostly reusable shuttles. Way back in the 1960s, NASA's X-15 rocket jet reached an altitude of 67 miles [108 kilometers] after being towed to 45,000 feet by a B-52 bomber. And in many ways, suborbital flights have their own set of unique challenges. At suborbital altitudes the air isn't dense enough to provide lift, yet at these heights, speeds still build up dangerously as the vehicle descends during recovery. The trick for X-Prize contestants is to meet such challenges economically—to put something up that's simple and cheap. Len Cormier, a retired Navy pilot and aerospace consultant, believes his Pan Aero project could win the prize if his team had $2.4 million. Sitting in his northern Virginia home office, looking every bit the former fighter pilot at age 76, he is convincing. Like most of the other entrants, he has been working on commercial space travel ideas for years. On his computer screen are designs for Pan Aero's entry, an aircraft that would take off from a runway using conventional jet engines, then switch to rocket power at high altitude.

da Vinci, a compact three-person spacecraft designed and built by a volunteer team of aerospace specialists, will be hoisted to 80,000 feet via a huge helium balloon. In less than a second, twin rocket engines will fire and cut loose the craft for a brief lunge into space. After reentry: a parafoil-guided descent and a flared landing in Saskatchewan.Photograph courtesy of X-Prize

Advent, a rocket ship fueled by oxygen and natural gas, will be sent skyward from a water location by Advent Launch Services of Houston, a group of NASA retirees. Their ultimate goal is to build a series of modular space vehicles that blast off vertically, touch the edge of space, then ferry passengers back to a seaplane-style landing.Photograph courtesy of X-Prize

Eclipse Astroliner, a reusable delta-wing aircraft with both an LOX/kerosene rocket engine and jet engines, was designed by NASA contractor Kelly Space and Technology of San Bernardino, California. Towed up to a release altitude by a Boeing 747, its rocket will propel it into space, after which it will glide down for a runway landing.Photograph courtesy of X-Prize

Thunderbird, powered by four turbofan jet engines, will ascend to a high altitude, where a liquid-fueled rocket designed by Steven Bennett's Starchaser Industries of Cheshire, England, will boost the spacecraft 62 miles above Earth. The two components will separate during reentry, both braked by parachutes for a soft, air-bag landing.Photograph courtesy of X-Prize

Proteus, a high-altitude turbofan-powered aircraft designed, built, and already flight-tested by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites, LLC of Mojave, California, will carry a rocket ship piggyback to 37,000 feet, where the spacecraft will detach and the rocket engine will boost it into space. Landing information has not been disclosed.Photograph courtesy of X-Prize

Cosmopolis C-XXI, a rocket-powered spaceship (foreground) designed with MDB of Moscow, will be carried to an altitude of 101/2 miles over 45 minutes by an M-55 aircraft. Detached for an air launch, its rocket engine will push it past the boundary of space for 20 more minutes. After reentry, it will glide to an airplane-style or parachute landing.Photograph courtesy of Yuri Kochetkov/AFP photo

"We think any X-Prize plan should make potential business sense," Cormier says. "Our system is based on a converted business jet built back in 1972 and proven rocket engines. You don't need a lot of exotic technology; you can do a lot by cleverly putting things together." And it all comes down to two simple ideas: Get the rocket up there, then get it down again. The middle part—the suborbital ride—takes care of itself. "Once you get out of the atmosphere, it's like tossing a rock," says Pat Kelley, president of Vela Technology Development and a member of the Pan Aero team. "You go up and back in seven minutes." Government organizations like NASA solve the first part with brute force—chemical rockets—which is why payloads cost $10,000 per pound. Jet engines are a much more economical approach for getting a payload up high before rocketry is necessary. One X-Prize team, Kelly Space and Technology in San Bernardino, California, plans to tow its rocket up by a long rope tied to a 747. The da Vinci Project's balloon is another low-cost attempt to get through the denser part of Earth's atmosphere. As for coming down, the easy part is landing. Teams using craft with wings plan to land on runways. Teams using ballistic rockets plan to land via parachute. The hard part is reentering the atmosphere. And the prize's altitude goal is especially troublesome. "A hundred kilometers [62 miles] at low speed is something you would normally avoid like the plague," says Cormier. At only Mach 2 or 3 for an X-Prize rocket, as opposed to a normal orbital speed of Mach 29 or so for the space shuttle, there are just not enough molecules around to provide the aerodynamic pressure that allows an aircraft to keep its nose up. But there is enough air to prevent a rocket from steering effectively with thruster jets, as it can in space. So there is a danger of falling too steeply too soon and then burning up. Pan Aero's solution is to use a wing as a parachute, a trick first suggested by NASA's Max Faget back in 1970 but not adopted for the space shuttle. Pan Aero will recover the aircraft using the "belly flop" maneuver. This will maximize drag and decelerate the craft at a much higher altitude than it would in a nose-down position, with correspondingly decreased heat and pressure, until it gets low enough to pitch down and fly normally. Teams using more conventional rocket craft can't use a parachute at such altitudes. "There's a lot of published expertise out there about how to get a rocket up," says Feeney, "but very little about how to get it down." So his team is using "off-the-shelf technology," says da Vinci Project member Vladimir Kudriavstev, to reshape the rocket into a giant badminton birdie. Kudriavstev, managing director of Computational Fluid Dynamics, designed a ballute—a small inflatable parachute—that will begin to inflate 25 seconds after apogee and turn the entire ship into a large shuttlecock shape. The ballute keeps the rocket upright by raising the center of pressure above the center of gravity, just as a shuttlecock always falls rubber tip down. That should keep the rocket from overheating. The ballute will create drag to slow the vehicle and a shock wave to dissipate heat, keeping temperatures close to 750 degrees instead of the 1,800 degrees that a typical NASA craft experiences on reentry. The da Vinci should then fall like a champion's lob all the way to 25,000 feet, where a parafoil-type parachute should unfold. A fully automated GPS system will control the parafoil to a flared landing within a 15.5-mile-radius near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Da Vinci will then bounce slightly on the inflated cone at the base of the shuttlecock, fall to one side, and come to rest at a 52-degree angle. That's the theory, anyway. Despite the impressive organization Feeney has assembled, he has yet to get a pilot's license, let alone build or fly a spacecraft. And the da Vinci Project is nothing less than unconventional, as any winner of the X-Prize most likely will be. Not one of the competitors has ever put a spacecraft in orbit or suborbit. So although the da Vinci may be the first to launch, picking an odds-on favorite at this time is like betting on a horse race in which none of the horses has ever run before. That's especially true when one considers a dark horse in this race named Burt Rutan, who has a history of breaking away from the pack and accomplishing impossible feats. Rutan had long been a designer of unconventional but very successful small aircraft, such as the VariEze, when in 1986 he shocked the aviation world by launching a hand-built airplane called Voyager. It was essentially a hollow flying fuel tank with twin booms between the wing and the tail, which made it look something like a World War II P-38 Lightning. Using two engines, one to push and one to pull (the pusher engine was used only for takeoff and climbing over bad weather and other crucial events), it struggled off the ground in its first flight with full fuel tanks—7,011 pounds of fuel, more than 70 percent of its gross takeoff weight. Piloted by Rutan's brother Richard and copilot Jeana Yeager, Voyager became the first aircraft in history to circle the world nonstop without refueling. In 1998 Rutan became the first person to fly full-scale X-Prize hardware: Proteus, a twin-jet canard aircraft designed and built by his company, Scaled Composites. Proteus will be used to carry a rocket with enough thrust to launch three citizens over 60 miles up.

What the winner has to do In a giant leap for private enterprise, the X-Prize winner will have to send three people into space—defined as an altitude greater than 62 miles—and bring them back alive. As in any sound scientific experiment, the results must be repeatable: The winner must reach space and return twice within two weeks—and do it all without government funding. The flight plan for the da Vinci group's attempt appears above.Graphic by Matt Zang

Rutan will not discuss his rocket or much else about his attempt to win the X-Prize. He is keenly aware of the history of aviation's prizes and the fate of those most publicized. In 1909 Louis Blériot became the first person to fly the English Channel—and claim the £1,000 Daily Mail prize—when he sneaked off the ground at 4:41 a.m. to beat his more publicized competitor, Hubert Latham, who was still asleep. In 1927 the unknown aviator Charles Lindbergh, who was also reticent to talk to the press, took off across the Atlantic in questionable weather conditions to get the jump on his more famous competitors, who were waiting for fog to lift. The most publicized and most controversial X-Prize entrant is Steven Bennett of England, head of Starchaser Industries. On November 23, 2001, near Morecambe Bay in northwest England, he test-launched his solid-fuel ballistic rocket, Nova, a 37-foot-long scaled down model of the Thunderbird rocket he hopes will win the prize. Bennett, like others in this race, exudes confidence, saying: "We will definitely win the prize by 2003." Nova did go up and return successfully by parachute. But it went up only 5,000 feet. Two years ago several prominent British rocketeers voiced skepticism about Bennett's chances in a BBC Online article—"If he launches, it'll be Bye Bye Bennett," said one, and, "He has absolutely no chance of the X-Prize," said another. But, as Cormier says, "the real challenge of the X-Prize is to get the funding," and Bennett is trying to sell a seat aboard the Thunderbird for $650,000. That's hardly enough for Cormier. "With $2.4 million cash, we'd have a good crack at it," he says. If he gets the money, he plans to fly Pan Aero's SabreRocket himself and is another contestant easily compared with Lindbergh. Like the famous aviator, he was trained as a fighter pilot but never saw combat. Like Lindbergh's aircraft, his will be far less expensive and simpler than those of competitors such as Rutan and Bennett. Unlike Lindbergh, Cormier will be at least 76 years old and piloting after a 30-year hiatus. But he has already passed a flight physical and has better than 20/20 uncorrected vision. Pan Aero's craft shouldn't be much more difficult to fly than the jets Cormier commanded at the end of his Navy career—"until the rockets kick in, that is," he says. "Then it will be a real kick in the ass—an ejection seat with wings. Still, I've trained at much higher stresses." Feeney has flown more recently but has much less experience—a lifetime total of 25 hours as a student pilot. He was, however, trained in parachuting by the British Army and has been a scuba diver for 20 years. And considering the truth behind what X-15 rocket-plane pilots used to say about astronauts—that they were nothing more than guinea pigs, not required to do anything—Feeney's spot in the pilot's seat may not be outlandish. "A computerized flight-guidance system flies any ballistic rocket," he says. "No one could do it manually." Still, Feeney will train where the Canadian astronauts do, at the Defense and Civil Institute for Environmental Medicine, in a program including g-load and Coriolis-effect acclimation, vacuum-chamber work, exposure to extreme heat and cold, and second-seat aerobatic training. Feeney's lack of pilot training is more than made up for by a well-designed, lightweight, economical system. Launching from a balloon and landing like a shuttlecock may appear quixotic, but every detail of da Vinci is based on proven systems. In the 1950s James Van Allen launched research rockets from balloons to study the upper atmosphere. Today several serious amateur organizations, including one chapter of the National Space Society, frequently launch "rockoons," as the systems have come to be known. Da Vinci's balloon will most likely be contracted to Cameron Balloons, the English company that built the Breitling Orbiter 3—the first balloon to fly nonstop around the world. Cameron balloons have also carried payloads almost as heavy as the da Vinci rocket to altitudes higher than 80,000 feet. Da Vinci's twin 5,000-pound-thrust rocket engines have already been built and test-flown by an unnamed California company that spent $20 million developing them. The shuttlecock ballute is also an old concept, with a new twist—it doubles as a landing air bag. The ballute functions as an inverted parachute too, a design that originated with Leonardo da Vinci. If the parafoil and backup parachutes fail, the ballute will minimize the impact enough to avoid disaster.

The X-Prize trophy, a five-foot cast-bronze creation by sculptor James Todd, represents "the human outreach into space." And, oh yes, the victorious space team also wins $10 million.

Although he savors adventure, Feeney does not consider his quest dangerous. The project has been designed with many layers of safety redundancy. If both the primary and secondary sets of explosive bolts, which separate the rocket from its balloon tether, fail, the rocket engines will shut off, and a capsule will separate from the rocket and parachute down. There are two backup parachutes in case the main parafoil does not deploy, and even if all three fail, the ballute should prevent Feeney from being killed. If the ballute fails to deploy and the parafoil fails too, the pilot can separate the capsule and float down on its own chutes. "If the ballute fails, all the parachutes fail, and the capsule doesn't separate," Feeney says, "the people can bail out." Their space suits will each have two military aero-conical chutes, as well as a separate small ballistic one. "So even in the worst case, we'll still save the pilot and passengers. Not even the airlines can claim that." Demonstrated safety is likely to become important for all X-Prize contestants, because all are looking toward a commercial future. "Even if you failed to win the X-Prize," says Pan Aero's Kelley, "but you made the flight safely, you'd still be a winner in a business sense, as far as attracting sponsors and passengers." One recent study reported that in North America alone, there are 10,000 people willing to pay $100,000 each to go into space—even on a suborbital flight. "The private sector developed commercial aviation and the railroads," says Feeney. "The government is only responsible for regulating these things after the fact. If we want to go to space, we've got to do it ourselves." "One gets the feeling it's the year 1925 or 1927," says Feeney, "close to a Lindbergh-type event. Once someone demonstrates you can do it, they break down psychological barriers, and then comes the fun part—being involved in the next 10 to 20 years of burgeoning commercial space travel." Feeney's plans call for a sequence of tests early next year: first an unmanned flight; then a manned, full-mission test; and at the end of the year, the official X-Prize flights. "I can't wait," he says, "till I'm climbing into that capsule, knowing that unless there's some kind of abort, I'm not coming out of this thing until I've gone into space." For at least an hour after climbing in, he'll have to wait as the balloon takes him to 80,000 feet. Then a computer will take over and a 30-second countdown sequence will begin. Finally, within 100 milliseconds, the engines will fire, the explosive fuses will pop, and the rocket will soar. "If we drag the balloon with us, it's going to be embarrassing," Feeney says, "so we'll try not to do that." Although it seems unlikely anyone will try to launch before Feeney does, spaceflights are best known for their delays. If Feeney runs into a snag, then Cormier, Rutan, Bennett, or one of the other contenders will be closer to their own first launch. But like them, Feeney can see a future far beyond a $10 million prize: "My goal is to get into space and stay there. Commercial aviation was not built by one person or one company, and the space business won't be built by one X-Prize winner." Still, he'd like to be first. That person, he says, "will inspire a generation."

Eternal fighter jock and septuagenarian pilot Len Cormier demonstrates the 85-degree flight-path angle necessary to boost his Pan Aero team's SabreRocket into the X-Prize money zone of space at Mach 3.

For a comprehensive look at the X-Prize contest, including frequent updates and information about participating teams, ships, and history, see

Learn more about Brian Feeney and the da Vinci Project at

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