Just a Couple of Sunday Drives...Into Space

St. Louis, Mo.; Sept. 26 — You've heard of the "X Files," the "X Men" and the "X Games," but have you heard of the X Prize? It was created in St. Louis, in May of 1996, to promote a new generation of inexpensive, reusable, privately developed launch vehicles designed to carry passengers into space at affordable prices.

The X Prize is a $10 million award patterned after the famous prizes that did so much to advance aviation in the 20th Century. These include the Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won for his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic, and the Kremer Prizes that produced the first meaningful human-powered flight in 1977 and the first human-powered flight across the English Channel in 1979.

To win the X Prize, a team must fly its spacecraft twice in 14 days to an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles). That's well above the 50-mile (80.5 kilometers) threshold for astronaut status, but not so high that exotic and expensive heat shielding would be required.

The prize's rules require that the spacecraft be privately funded and built. No government money, financial assistance or special help is permitted. However, contestants can use government facilities and government-developed equipment if they are available to everyone on similar terms.

Competing vehicles must be built to carry three normal-size adults, although only one person is required to fly on launches for the prize. (In that case, ballast equivalent to two additional people must be carried.) In addition, prior to the second flight, no more than 10 percent of the spacecraft's weight can be replaced, not counting the weight of fuel.

The last requirement, not surprisingly, is that both the spacecraft and its passengers return from both flights in good shape.

So far, 19 teams have signed up to compete. As you would expect in any contest offering a big-money prize, the entries and the people and companies behind them cover a broad spectrum, running from the cutting-edge to smoke and mirrors. Famous aerospace names and PhDs are sprinkled throughout the competitors, as well as people no one has ever heard of before.

The designs include an array of sleek spaceplanes and conventional-looking rockets, plus a couple offerings that look like they were designed by somebody's kid brother. One would be towed to launch altitude, while another would rely on air-to-air refueling before heading into space. Still another would land on the water like a seaplane, and one would use a Russian spy plane to carry it aloft.

And one looks distinctly like a flying saucer.

Here are thumbnail sketches of the vehicles currently entered:
Scaled Composites (USA), Proteus
Burt Rutan's outfit is the only team that has part of its program actually flying. They will use the turbofan-powered Proteus high-altitude research plane (see photo page) to haul the passenger-carrying rocket to 37,000 feet. At that point, Proteus will pitch up and release the rocket, which will fire its engine and soar to 100 kilometers (62 miles). That process should take about two minutes. After coasting into space and reentering the atmosphere, the rocket will return to earth by an as-yet unspecified method.

Pioneer Rocketplane (USA), Pathfinder
Pioneer's rocketplane takes off from a conventional runway, then is refueled inflight by a tanker aircraft such as an Air Force KC-135 or KC-10. Presumably, this is to reduce takeoff weight to a more manageable limit. After refueling, Pathfinder fires its rocket engine and climbs into space. At mission end, it lands on its original runway or another conventional runway.

AeroAstro (USA), PA-X2
PA-X2 is a conventional-looking rocket that uses liquid oxygen/kerosene engines developed from a 20-year-old NASA design. It will use carbon-epoxy tanks and will be launched in a conventional vertical fashion. After completing its time in space, the entire spacecraft is brought back under a steerable parafoil that glides back to the vicinity of the launch site for a landing cushioned by airbags.

Advent Launch Services (USA), Advent
Advent is an oxygen/natural gas-powered rocket that is launched vertically while floating in the ocean. Passengers are supposed to get about four minutes of zero-gravity time in space, after which the rocket glides back to the launch site and lands like a seaplane.

Discraft Corporation (USA), The Space Tourist
The distinctly flying-saucer-like Space Tourist is designed to use "blastwave-pulsejets" to power it to Mach 10, after which it coasts to an altitude of 75 miles. It then continues its unpowered flight back into the atmosphere to an altitude where the engines can be restarted. Takeoff and landing are to be on conventional runways, and the entire flight should take about five minutes.

Mickey L. Badgero (USA), Lucky Seven
Lucky Seven is a conventional-style rocket whose main engines will burn for about a minute and a half. Following that, the rocket will coast to its 62-mile (100 kilometers) design altitude and then back into the atmosphere, where it will deploy a drogue parachute. At a lower altitude the drogue will be replaced by a steerable parasail that will be guided to the landing area by GPS navigation.

Earth Space Transport System Corporation (unknown), unknown
No data available

Bristol Spaceplanes (England), Ascender
Ascender (photo above) uses jet engines to reach an altitude of six miles (eight kilometers), at subsonic speeds. At that point, its rocket motor is fired and it accelerates nearly vertically at Mach 2.8 until the rocket fuel is expended. The plane then coasts up to 62 miles (100 kilometers) altitude, then reenters the atmosphere and lands like a conventional aircraft.

Pablo De Leon & Associates (Argentina), Gauchito
Gauchito is a conventional-style rocket that uses four clustered hybrid engines. It takes off vertically and accelerates at 3.5 gs until it reaches an altitude of 34 kilometers (21 miles), at which time it coasts to 120 kilometers (74.5 miles). After roughly five minutes in space, the ship reenters and makes a parachute landing similar to those made by US Apollo spacecraft.

Lone Star Space Access (USA), Cosmos Mariner
Cosmos Mariner (see photo page) would take off from a coastal airport near Houston and use its two jet engines to fly out over the ocean, at about 40,000 ft. and Mach 0.8. At that point, the ship pitches up and fires its rocket engine, which burns for about 130 seconds, propelling the craft to Mach 7 at 200,000 ft. From there, Cosmos Mariner would coast to an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles) in about 100 seconds. After completing its mission it would land like a conventional aircraft.

Pan Aero (USA), XVan2001
XVan2001 looks like a slightly futuristic executive jet and uses a surplus J-85 jet engine to take it to an altitude of 11 kilometers (6.8 miles), at Mach 0.8. That's where its rocket engine takes over, boosting the craft to 50 kilometers (31 miles) at Mach 3.7. After that it coasts to roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles), then reenters the atmosphere at 40 kilometers (24.9 miles) and Mach 3.8. Following a steep, 4.5-g dive, the XVan2001 would decelerate to subsonic speed and restart the J-85 to fly back to the runway from which it took off.

Starchaser Industries (England), Thunderbird
Thunderbird would take off vertically, powered by four turbofan engines. After reaching the appropriate altitude, the liquid oxygen/kerosene rocket engine would accelerate the ship at 3 gs until the fuel is expended. From there, the ship would coast to 100 kilometers (62 miles) and give the passengers several minutes of weightlessness before reentering the atmosphere. A steerable parasail would bring the craft back to earth.

Dr. Graham Dorrington (England), Green Arrow
Green Arrow is another of the conventional-type rockets, and would use kerosene and hydrogen peroxide for fuel. It would take off vertically and accelerate at 3 gs until its fuel is gone, after which it would coast up to 100 kilometers (62 miles), then free-fall back toward earth. A ballute/gas-bag system would stabilize the descent, prior to deployment of a drogue parachute, which would be followed by the main descent parachute. The landing would take place roughly 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) downrange, and would be cushioned by airbags.

Kelly Space and Technology (USA), Eclipse Astroliner
The Eclipse Astroliner looks like the sleek, classic "space liner" that's been proposed for years. It will use a liquid oxygen/kerosene rocket engine and will take off from a conventional runway. However, unlike any of the other contenders, it will be towed to altitude by a Boeing 747. After release from the 747, it will fire its rocket engine and blast to an altitude of 182.88 kilometers (113 miles), before gliding back to the airport from which it left for an aircraft-style landing.

MICHELLE-B is a vertical-launch rocket that uses variable power settings during its flight to manage dynamic loadings. The engine would burn about 80 seconds, after which the craft would coast to an altitude of 104 kilometers (64.6 miles). During reentry, an expanding "aero-shield" would reduce speed and control reentry temperatures. At about 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) the engine would be powered up again to reduce velocity and control the ship's vertical landing.

Cosmopolis XXI (Russia), Cosmopolis XXI
Cosmopolis XXI uses a Russian M-55 "Geophisika" high-altitude research aircraft (spy plane) to carry a three-passenger rocket to a launch altitude of 20 kilometers (13.2 miles). At that point the rocket is fired and accelerates the ship to maximum velocity, after which the passenger capsule separates and continues into space. When its mission is finished, the capsule reenters the atmosphere and lands either aircraft-style or by parachute.

The daVinci Project (Canada), daVinci
The daVinci Project is another unusual concept. It will launch its spacecraft from 1000 feet (300 meters) below the world's largest hot air balloon (see photo page). The rocket will be fired from beneath the 25-story-tall balloon at an altitude of 40,000 feet. Initially, it will fly at an angle to distance itself from the balloon. Then it will turn to vertical flight and will accelerate to Mach 4, before coasting to its maximum altitude of 120 kilometers (74.5 miles). During reentry, a ballute will stabilize the rocket until a steerable parachute is deployed at 10,000 feet and is guided to the landing zone by GPS.

Cerulean Freight Forwarding (USA), Kitten
Cerulean's Kitten is the latest entry for the X Prize. It is a tiny, rocket-powered, three-seat spaceplace designed to take off and land on normal runways. Takeoff speed is about 120 mph. At approximately 40,000 feet, the craft pitches up and accelerates at 2 gs for two minutes, then coasts into space. Passengers will get about two and a half minutes of weightlessness before reentry. From there, the Kitten glides back to its takeoff point for a conventional landing. Cerulean intends to make the Kitten available as a kit for aircraft homebuilders who really want to step up their flying. Cost is projected at a half-million dollars.

Click on the photo above to get a picture page showing several X Prize entries. At the top left is Scaled Composites' Prometheus high-altitude aircraft, which has been flying for some time. Next to it is the Canadian entry, the daVinci, which is shown suspended beneath the 25-story-high hot air balloon that is to carry it to its launch altitude. At the bottom left is Lone Star Space Access' Cosmos Mariner spaceplane, which would fly from and land at a major coastal airport. Next to it is Cerulean Freight Forwarding's diminutive Kitten spaceplane, which is slated to be available as a kit for aircraft homebuilders someday. — Ed Jacobs (Photos: Bristol Spaceplanes, Scaled Composites, da Vinci Project, Lone Star Space Access, Cerulean Freight Forwarding)