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Thu, Oct 13, 2005

Countdown To The Cup: Day Three (Saturday)

A Set-Up Day...

Today was a relatively slow day for X-Prize Cup events so instead of giving it heavy coverage, we took advantage of the opportunity to interview some of the movers and shakers that events have brought together here in New Mexico.

It's quite remarkable to see a hunk of ramp of a normal GA airport transformed, in the space of a few hours, into a show venue. "Walls" were created with stacked shipping containers, which at showtime are covered with banners created by the show sponsors. Some will talk of the X-Prize and X-Prize Cup; some will promote New Mexico (the state was a major sponsor of the show); some will recount space and rocketry history. A lot of these last are sponsored by NASA.

You could actually get a basic education on the history of space exploration, at least of American space exploration, by walking around and reading these signs. But overall, the emptiness of the ramp is the most striking feature. The stage and Jumbotron are in place, and tomorrow's presentations are being rehearsed, polished, and timed with precision (you don't think a show like this just "happens," do you?)

And then there are the spacecraft. Some of the spacecraft are real (like the daVinci Project's) and some are mockups (like Rocketplane) and, obviously, SpaceShipOne. Many, both real and mockup, arrived a hair less than show-ready and need some last minute attention. The daVinci Project ship was freshly painted in homely green primer (it won't get its final coat till it's back home in Canada).

Participants of interest included Armadillo Aerospace, Canadian Arrow, Golden Palace/DaVinci Project, Rocketplane, Starchaser, t/Space, and amateur rocketeers Tripoli. It's a good time to get pictures of the craft, with so few people around.

Armadillo Aerospace

The small Armadillo Aerospace team was, according to Burt Rutan, his closest competitor for the X-Prize. Team members fondly remember a lunch with him shortly after the X-Prize was won, where he said, "it was a mistake for you guys to put all your information on the Web. Because it kept me motivated."

But this young team has always been open and accessible, eager and willing to share information. They have explored several different propulsion concepts, starting with a High-Test-Peroxide/catalytic monopropellant engine and passing through two generations of bipropellant, the current engine will use an improvised chamber because the manufactured ones are having burn-through problems -- as a display of ruined engine parts testifies.

The most fascinating technology developed by Armadillo has to be their automatic guidance, stability and control system which functions by gimballing the main engine nozzle. I've watched them flying on their webpage, now I want to see it for real.

Canadian Arrow/Planetspace

Canadian Arrow is the rocket team, and Planetspace the operating organization that hopes to send tourists to suborbital space in 2007. The Arrow is based upon the V-2 of World War II notoriety, although the Canadians have improved many of the original's shakier subsystems in the interests of producing man-rated reliability.

GoldenPalace.com/DaVinci Project

Dav1d Grossman (yes, the "1" is actually in his name, which is pronounced the same as numberless "Davids") of the daVinci Project told me that they had had a lot of paperwork to do to comply with ITAR regulations. Of course, any suborbital spacecraft is by definition a potential ballistic missile, and therefore "dual use technology" subject to international regulations.

This creates a barrier, although obviously not an insuperable one, to foreign firms looking to display their spacecraft in the USA (and, presumably, vice versa).

The GoldenPalace.com/daVinci Project craft has some unusual features. The recovery parachutes are normal BRS softpacks, concealed behind circular doors on the cheeks of the capsule. The pilot sits in the center seat, into which the team obligingly installed a dummy (in real pilot Brian Feeney's real pressure suit). After the ship is proven inflight, the side seats will carry passengers. "The center seat is mine," Feeney says.

There was to be a drop demonstration at the show, but that depended on a drop test being conducted in time. The drop test slid to November, and the show organizers, while enthusiastic about demonstrations, didn't want actual tests taking place here in front of the public.

Rocketplane

Rocketplane will fly from Oklahoma, where authorities are building a spaceport to specialize in normal horizontal take-off and landing craft, such as the XCOR Xerus or the OK Spaceport's launch customer, Rocketplane. In this case the name pretty well describes the concept. The "plane" is a retired Learjet, to which Rocketplane adds modified wings, a new tail, and a large rocket engine in the tailcone. At the Personal Spaceflight Expo, there was a mockup of the Rocketplane vehicle.

Starchaser

This British company has offices here in New Mexico, and plans a vertical launch of its Thunderstar vehicle. Starchaser has the best names for its gear; its main rocket motor, of which Thunderstar uses two in the first stage, is the Churchill MK III. This comes of Starchaser's founder, Steve Bennett, being a Gerry Anderson fan (Thunderbirds - Fireball XL5 -- Supermarionation).

There were three components of the Starchaser display. A booth where the usual T-shirts, etc., were hawked; a capsule mock-up, which had a set of stairs, and a  burn of the Churchill MkII engine. A ten second burn of this lox/kerosene baby brother to the MkII was conducted on Saturday with no problems, making us look forward to Sunday's planned one-minute burn.

t/Space

Transformational Aerospace, or t/Space, set up an enormous full sized mockup of their CXV (Crew Transfer Vehicle) design for NASA. This is intended to be a safer and more economical delivery and recovery system for ISS crews than the present systems, the complicated Shuttle Transportation System and the venerable Russian Soyuz capsule. The mock-up had a fully finished interior.

Tripoli

This amateur rocket organization was planning to launch several rockets on Sunday, including a 30,000 foot high-altitude flight, a large rocket decorated with US flag colors, and a 1/3 scale V-2, which was painted in the yellow and black of the first V-2 fired (unsuccessfully!) at White Sands.

Virgin Group

Had a mockup of SpaceShipOne on hand.

XCOR Aerospace

Like Starchaser, XCOR had a multivalent approach to the Prize. The core of their effort was with the EZ-Rocket, and we had been privileged to watch test pilot Rick Searfoss fly it -- and discover some glitches --on Friday. Saturday the team worked hard at resolving some of the snags that troubled the Friday flight. Would they succeed?

They also had a booth where they would be running XCOR's original "teacart" engine, a small rocket engine that the company's engineers developed in the earliest days. This was always popular whenever XCOR's techs lit it up -- usually at informal bashes in the company's hangar home. Would it still draw attention with all these things for the crowds to see?

X-Prize Foundation

The Foundation has a trailer that folds out to form a mobile theater, in which they show a short film about the X-Prize flights of SpaceShipOne on October 29 and November 4, 2004. They also spent the day, as Starchaser and many others did, setting up and rehearsing their Sunday show.

As The Day Ended...

There were other exhibitors, notably including governmental entities like Sandia, White Sands, and NASA. But as the sun grew low in the sky, most of the teams were as ready as they could be for the morning.

What they weren't ready for was the weather. A planned joint appearance by Governor Bill Richardson and X-Prize Founder and CEO Dr Peter Diamandis at an NMSU Aggies football game went down the tubes as a blustery rainstorm came in, defying New Mexico's desert status and pouring down in big cold droplets for hours.

The X-Prize theater trailer, the "Box That Rocks" mobile radio station from KVLC Oldies 101, and the comely NMSU cheerleaders (who were hired to pass out brochures) had done their promotional best at a pregame party in the tailgate area. Would the crowd turn out? Would the rain stop in time, or would the whole event be rained out?

We didn't know the answers to any of these questions when we did our best to dry out and get some sleep. Many of the Countdown To The X-Prize Cup key personnel were equally cranky, tired, wet -- and nervous. Exhibitor personnel, some of them, were up late into the night seeing to their exhibits, lashing them down against the rain and wind.

Actors have a superstition that a bad rehearsal leads to a good show --and vice versa. But the rehearsal was "OK, with some glitches." It was the weather trends that were unfavorable, and the turnout that was unknown.

Luckily, pilots aren't superstitious like that. Are we?

(To Be Continued...)

FMI:  www.xpcup.com, www.xprize.org

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