X Prize: The Launch

We got up at 3:30 a.m., had some motel-room coffee, then drove from Tehachapi to Mojave and got there about 4:30 or so. Plenty of time to hike around the runway area, see how many people had shown up overnight (not an overwhelming number) and get ready for the big event. I won’t get into all that now, other than to say how remarkable it is to watch someone roll by on a runway a 7 in the morning and watch them glide back to Earth from space at 8:30. One guy I’ve been talking to at Mojave Airport — Stuart Witt, the facility’s general manager and a former Top Gun pilot who has done test flights, too — said a couple of times over the last few weeks, “Everybody’s assuming this is a done deal. It’s not. It’s risky business.” Knowing that, it’s moving to look up into the sky and see this little glider coming back intact and to hear the pilot radio in how beautifully the craft is handling.

So that’s that, for now. Except to offer a couple pictures that Garth shot during the event (used with his permission).

I drove back from Mojave in one butt-numbing shot (it’s 340 miles; and while I don’t find Interstate 5 horrible and ugly the way many do, it’s not really a fun drive). I’ll head back down for the second prize launch, which still looks like it will happen early next week.

X Prize Eve: 09.28.04

In Tehachapi tonight, about 20 miles west of Mojave on California Highway 58, if you’re map-inclined. The town sits in a broad valley amid the peaks of the Tehachapi Mountains, the barrier standing between the lower end of the Central Valley to the west and the Mojave Desert to the east. Didn’t see much of town tonight — got to our motel (I’m here with Garth Patil, a friend from what I’ll call a past work project to avoid a long digression).

Spent the day at the Mojave Airport (which, since it has an FAA license for suborbital space launches, some in town call the Mojave Spaceport). There’s a different feeling now from the June launch. It seemed like many fewer people were showing up at the RV encampment next to the air strip. There was no press conference and no access to the principals at any point during the day. So I guess I’d say there’s something of a muted, anticlimactic feel around the event so far (I’m sure that’s not the feeling for Burt Rutan’s team or for the X Prize people — they’re about to see a big payoff for a lot of work).

Garth and I did manage to crash a little party that another space-launch startup, Xcor Aerospace, was holding in their hangar along the airport flight line. We got to go in and meet a bunch of the local aerospace people and get a rundown on what Xcor is doing (their primary longterm project, if they can get fully financed: developing a suborbital space plane to do “inexpensive” tourist launches (the company they’re working with, Space Adventures, has said they’ll sell tickets for $98,000 apiece; that compares to the $208,000 proposed by Virgin’s Richard Branson for flights on a future spaceplane based on Rutan’s design and technology). In any case, if we are going to have a space tourism industry — and eventually, we will — this is one of the places the hard work of creating it is happening.

We have a 3:30 a.m. wakeup call. That’s six hours and six minutes from now, so I’m going to close right here. More tomorrow.

X Prize: Next Stop, Mojave

Cimg1357_2I’ll be out in the Mojave Desert the next couple of days covering the first of the launches for the X Prize. If you haven’t been following the X Prize, you’ve been missing my peerless coverage at Wired News. Well, I wish it was peerless, anyway. The X Prize is a worldwide competition offering $10 million to the first privately financed group than can launch a three-man mini-spaceship on a suborbital flight to 100 kilometers (suborbital means you fly up and return to Earth without going into orbit), then do it again within two weeks. The prize offer expires at the end of the year. Despite having 26 teams sign up for the prize — a somewhat deceiving number, as only a handful have ever flown anything of consequence — the contest has come down to a single team: American Mojave Aerospace, headed by designer Burt Rutan and funded by Bill Gates’s old high school and college buddy (and my old employer, at a great remove, when I was at TechTV), Paul Allen. They plan to try their first launch Wednesday morning, and the weather down in Mojave looks like it’ll be fine (the wild card seems to be early-morning winds that aren’t necessarily friendly to Rutan’s SpaceShipOne space plane.

Kate and I went down to SpaceShipOne’s successful space launch in June — the picture is of SS1 landing, with a chase plane in the background. It’ll be interesting to see whether there’s the same level of excitement — the same kind of crowd — for this event. More later from the desert.

X Prize Update: da Vinci Delay

Monday I plan to go down to Southern California to cover Burt Rutan’s first X Prize flight for Wired News. I had been debating going up to Saskatchewan at the end of the week for the planned rocket launch by da Vinci Project. The launch was supposed to happen next Saturday, Oct. 2, and I had gotten a motel reservation in Kindersley, the launch site. But Wired News wasn’t too keen on paying for me to go up there, so it was going to be a matter of going on my own dime or trying to report it over the phone or something (the latter being a rather lame excuse for covering this kind of story). But the da Vinci Project, whose plans have drawn lots of skepticism (as I noted in a post in early August), made the decision easier for me, announcing last night that they’re postponing their flight. Wired News posted my story on the delay about an hour ago.

X Prize Status Report

Today’s story on Wired News: A roundup of the handful of teams that are still saying they have a chance to launch this year for the $10 million prize. John Carmack, the guy who pretty much invented the first-person-shooter videogame, had some strong words about the da Vinci Project’s promised balloon-and-rocket space shot, set for Oct. 2:

“… The chance of (da Vinci) taking a rocket that’s never been tested — they started before we did and they have flown nothing, not a subscale vehicle, not a model, haven’t even put a balloon in the air, absolutely nothing — the idea they’re going to go from nothing to a full suborbital space vehicle, it’s just silly.”

The Self-Promoting Life

More brilliant work from your trusted Number One source for brilliance (me, in case you didn’t know): I have another X Prize story on Wired News this morning. This one focuses on how much alarm is justified when someone wants to blast off in an untried spaceship:

“… The debate surrounding Toronto’s Brian Feeney and his planned space launch raises important questions: How much freedom will the new generation of space explorers have as they search for cheap ways to fly people into the heavens? In trying to break away from costly, slow, government-run methods of developing manned flight systems, how much risk will we tolerate?”

Infospigot: The Self-Promotion

Another story on Wired News today (here), this time about the da Vinci’s Project running into trouble getting insurance and having its launch permit slowed down as a result. The upshot is that even though da Vinci has announced an Oct. 2 launch date for the X Prize, it’s possible that not all the paperwork will be done on time to do it.

X Prize News 08.09.04

By way of my editor at Wired News, Marty Cortinas, this link to a story about an launch failure in Washington state on Sunday involving Space Transport Corp.‘s Rubicon I rocket. What’s impressive is that they’ve gotten to the point where they can bring something to the launch pad and say, hey, we’re gonna go supersonic with this thing and get up to 20,000. What’s sobering is the result.

Not — repeat, not — to compare Space Transport’s effort with the da Vinci Project in any way, this is the kind of episode that shows the unpredictability and vulnerability of new launch systems. And it’s the kind of thing that makes some fairly knowledgeable observers (MSNBC’s Alan Boyle points to one) wonder why da Vinci is so willing to go into space without a complete test of its system.

X Prize News: Will It Fly?

The thing about the da Vinci Project is … people are skeptical it will work. Just after my story was published Thursday about how the volunteer X Prize team had found an angel sponsor and will do its balloon-and-rocket-to-space launch in October, I got an email from a reader: “$20 bucks says the guy torches on re-entry, … assuming the airborne launch even works.”

Is that just a Nascar crash fantasy at work? Or a well-informed doubt?

People following the X Prize have seen Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne craft fly, know that it has a deliberate testing history, and that it comes from a team guided by a very smart, capable guy and funded by a very rich one (Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen). When it comes to da Vinci and its Wild Fire spacecraft, there’s none of that history and consequently none of the confidence that at least it’s not a crazy stunt.

Last week, Rutan asked Brian Feeney at the X Prize press conference in Santa Monica whether da Vinci would do any “envelope expansion” flights before launching for space. In other words, would there be a program of deliberate testing before committing to a full-on launch? Feeney’s answer to me when I asked a similar question at the end of June was that there is no way of really doing a full system test because of the balloon-launch element. He seemed to suggest it was too complex practically to do a complete test. Thursday when I interviewed him he told me the team wouldn’t disclose details of any upcoming tests for competitive reasons.

Here was his exchange with Rutan:

Rutan: Do you mind if I ask a question? Or do I have to go down there [with the media attending the conference]? Are you going to fly a spaceflight on your first flight, or are you going to do envelope expansion?

Feeney: Yeah, Burt, actually you asked me that question about two months ago here when were out to dinner. The X Prize got together a group of twelve competitors a couple of months ago and we talked about all our various efforts. But the second night we were at the Cafe Del Rey and I happened to be sitting opposite Burt, and over fine wine and dinner for about four hours we kept bantering back and forth about rockets, and I think we asked each other 12 different ways and gave each other 12 different answers about when and how we were gonna fly. Um, now we, uh, it’s generally our intent to go to space on our first flight. We have a ballistic rocket. It’s not a — I’ll call SpaceShipOne a space plane — it does not have wings. We’re launching at such a high altitude, 80,000 feet, that we’re well on our way. We do not have — it’s a a standing start, so things like wind shear that are, maybe have complicated the past SpaceShipOne flights, are not a factor for us. We’ve got 1.2 million pound seconds of total impulse on board, which doesn’t mean much to most of you but it’s one hell of a lot of energy, and that’s going to take us out there. So yeah, we’ll … we’ll … short of something else that occurs in the meantime, we’ll go for it.

To be fair, Rutan asked a simple enough question, and Feeney answered it. But the question was loaded, too: Are you doing testing to prove what your ship can do? And if not, why not? The assumption underlying the spoken and unspoken question is one all of us who grew up in the space age are familiar with: If you’re going to do something crazy like light off some explosives and shoot yourself into space, it makes sense to be very, very sure you know what you’re doing. Go a step at a time. Expand the envelope. Push to discover unexpected problems and resolve them. Especially if you’re going to put someone’s life on the line.

In his reply, Feeney addressed the loaded part of Rutan’s query. But look at what he said. Is there really a straight answer there? The first Wild Fire shot will be to space. Because the ship will be launching from so high up. Because it has such a powerful rocket motor. Because Wild Fire should be easier to fly than SpaceShipOne. Those are all factors that Feeney is counting on to get him to space, and computer modeling probably shows him that it’s all going to work out fine. But none of that adds up to a reason for foregoing a full test of how all the pieces of the da Vinci Project’s system work when they’re integrated and used under the stress of real-world conditions.

Outsiders can only guess why Feeney has chosen not to do more extensive testing and to report it publicly. It probably comes down to a simple matter of not enough money on one hand and not enough time to test and still have a shot at the X Prize.

That sense that something is going off half-cocked is what leads to the feeling expressed by the Wired News reader that Feeney’s headed for a disaster. I’m not going to take that bet. I’d hate to see that happen, even if promoters of the new space race (and the experience of the old one) show that disasters are just part of reaching for the stars.

X Prize News 08.05.04

Well, Toronto’s da Vinci Project just announced it will launch October 2, three days after Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne. But the most amazing part of the story to me — setting aside the fact there’s a guy who’s going to climb onto a largely untested launch system and try to go to space — is the sponsorship: GoldenPalace.com, an online casino which operates from an Indian reservation near Montreal, pumped in several hundred thousand dollars to make this thing happen. Their angle: They get to be the first casino in space. In fact, they’re going to give da Vinci Project astronaut Brian Feeney a laptop so he can gamble online while he’s up there. More details later.

Update: Wired News posted my story (which was filed before I wrote the message above, by the way) by noon PDT, which actually made it competitive with Space.com, MSNBC, and other outlets. Yay.