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Texas teams compete for space prize
Texans Aiming High

Space exploration has taken more than a few hits in the last year. The February Columbia tragedy and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's highly critical report on the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) left some enthusiasts wondering what the future holds for space exploration. For other supporters, the future is already here.

Three decades after the enormous achievement of the Apollo missions, America's commitment to manned spaceflight lies with NASA's expensive and aging space shuttle fleet.

"The cost per pound of lofting payloads into orbit on the shuttle is actually higher than on the 1960s-era Saturn rockets," said Robert W. Poole, Jr., director of transportation studies and founder of the Reason Foundation, a public-policy think tank.

But in hangars and warehouses around the world, hundreds of enthusiasts have decided not to wait for governments to continue opening the high frontier. They're trying to jump-start a private leap into space. And, as always, Texans have joined the ranks of these new pioneers.

They're competing for the X Prize.

$10 million to space
The X Prize is a $10 million award for the first privately funded vehicle to carry a human crew into space and return safely. Offered since 1996 by the X Prize Foundation of Saint Louis, Mo., the prize is a deliberate attempt to recreate the competition--and public excitement--created by the great prizes awarded for aeronautical endeavors in the earlier years of the 20th century. Such prizes drove much early progress in aviation, such as the $25,000 Orteig Prize that prompted Charles Lindberg's history-making transatlantic flight.

The basic X Prize conditions are straightforward: the winner must develop and fly a privately financed and built manned craft, at least 90 percent reusable and capable of carrying at least three people, to a minimum altitude of 62 miles--and then do it again, within two weeks.

Competitors face a time limit if they want the full $10 million. The X Prize is funded through private donations and backed by an insurance policy that guarantees the amount. The present funding guarantee runs through January 1, 2005, although the foundation continues to solicit funds for the purse.

The X Prize has sparked a lively competition, with 24 teams from seven nations participating as of October 2003. The teams have proposed a bewildering variety of vehicles, from a Canadian entry based on the World War II-era V-2 rocket to a highly sophisticated carrier aircraft/rocket glider combination already built and being tested by California's Scaled Composites--the same company behind the nonstop around-the-world flight of the Voyager aircraft in 1987.

Three of the X Prize contenders are based in Texas.

"A bright future"
Dr. Norman LaFave, chief executive officer of Houston's Lone Star Space Access, exemplifies the can-do spirit of the X Prize contenders.

"I see a bright future for commercial space in Texas, but we need a push at the grass-roots level to go beyond reliance on NASA for that to happen," he said. LaFave's space technologies company is working to further that goal by developing the Cosmos Mariner, an inexpensive jet/rocket hybrid spaceplane capable of operating from conventional airports. LaFave has a quarter-century of aerospace experience with NASA and the military as well as the private sector.

"At present, we've completed design and analysis and we're negotiating with investors for financing to construct the Cosmos Mariner prototypes and set up a spaceport," LaFave said. "This should be finalized within a year. We see our vehicle flying within three to four years."

While this might put Lone Star Space Access out of the running for the full prize purse, the company's goals extend far beyond the contest.

"Our primary goal is to develop a practical and inexpensive launch system to attack today's markets while developing advanced technology for larger, more capable future systems," La Fave said. "We're taking our time to incrementally test new systems and are employing off-the-shelf technology as much as possible to mitigate risks." Still, he believes the X Prize has been an important factor.

"We're big supporters of the X Prize and believe that it has provided the spark that will lead to a larger, more robust, commercial space market," he said.

"The rocket that NASA refused"
Another Houston-based team, Advent Launch Services, is made up of NASA retirees who are focusing on reliable, low-cost space access of a kind that the space agency, so far, has had little success in delivering. The company's president, Jim Akkerman, is a 36-year NASA veteran.

"Since my retirement in January 1999, the bulk of my time and effort has been spent to develop the rocket that NASA has refused to have anything to do with," said Akkerman. "The shuttle costs about $10,000 per pound delivered to orbit. It can be done for $10."

Advent hopes to create a series of sturdy, mechanically simple rockets differing only in size.

The Advent X Prize contender will be a 35-foot, single-stage winged rocket designed to launch from and land in the Gulf of Mexico; it will give its passengers a three-minute period of weightlessness--and an extraordinary view. Like many X Prize contenders, Akkerman sees such vehicles as logical springboards for the beginning of space tourism, a new business that the consulting firm Futron Corp. recently estimated could generate more than a billion dollars in annual revenues by 2021.

"Any astronaut will tell you that a visit into space is a life-changing experience," said Akkerman. "The sky is beautiful on a dark night in West Texas, but it's nothing compared to the view from orbit."

But tourism will be just one focus for private space ventures.

"The most dramatic benefit from space will be energy," Akkerman said. "NASA did a study in 1980 that documented the fact that we can beam energy down from space for about two cents a kilowatt hour, with no environmental impact. [The energy companies] should consider it a new energy find--one that takes a little time and money to develop.

"The key to the whole thing is a low-cost orbit delivery system that can be developed for a few million dollars. Our little team of retirees will do it if necessary. It will just take a little longer."

Advent hopes to launch its first rocket in summer 2004.

"The biggest hurdle is red tape"
A third Texas team, Mesquite-based Armadillo Aerospace, is widely considered to be one of the most promising contenders for the X Prize, due not least to the financial support of its leader John Carmack, a legendary computer game developer. Armadillo's entry will be a 24-foot single-stage rocket designed to land via parachute, its fall cushioned by a crushable aluminum nosecone.

The Armadillo team's ad hoc approach to space travel has attracted some amused press attention; it recently acquired a used Russian space suit on eBay, the Internet auction house. But its program is serious and progressing nicely.

"In the short term, we're looking to do some full-scale moderate altitude testing within the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] "amateur" classification, which does not require a license," said team member Jim Milburn. "These tests may include a manned flight through 10,000 feet before the end of this year.

"Armadillo is a Texas-based company, and nothing would please us more than to do all our testing and flying in Texas," said Milburn. "In the short term, though, we will likely be restricted to 'amateur' flights in Texas because none of the state's proposed spaceports are even close to completing the environmental impact statement that is a prerequisite for a launch license. Therefore, we're restricted to federal ranges and are working closely with White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico."

According to Milburn, the technical problems involved in an X Prize attempt are nothing like those imposed by regulation.

"The biggest hurdle to private space flight is not the technology or the cost, it's bureaucratic red tape," he said. "The FAA is hogtied by the laws they are mandated to enforce. Armadillo, to launch its small vehicle in a remote desert void of people and infrastructure, has to jump through the same hoops as Lockheed and Boeing do to launch an Atlas or Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral on the Space Coast. The old joke is: once the paperwork weighs as much as the rocket, it can fly. It's not too far from the truth."

Like the other Texan contenders, the Armadillo team is looking beyond the immediate goal of the X Prize, confident that it will play a part in the birth of a new, privatized space age.

"Assuming Armadillo isn't strangled at birth with red tape--not likely, we're too tenacious for that--we intend to make this a paying business," Milburn said. "Even if the X Prize deadline expires without a winner, Armadillo will continue to pursue the goal of private manned space flight that has been the team's driving passion since its inception."

Bruce Wright