Canadians vie for the X-Prize

Human beings have been going into space for 40 years, riding vast amounts of U.S. or Russian government money, poured into massive rockets that are mostly thrown away after one use.

But many people think this is a terrible way to go into space. If we want to make space truly accessible (at a cost of less than the $20 million paid by Dennis Tito), we have to find a way to get there more cheaply, and without massive government involvement.

Well, guess what? Twenty teams from around the world are at this moment competing for a $10 million (U.S.) prize to launch the first private astronaut on a short flight into space.

Two of those teams, the daVinci Project and the Canadian Arrow, are Canadian–and the daVinci Project, based at the Toronto Aerospace Museum, is considered a front runner. It unveiled a full-scale prototype of its revolutionary rocket last weekend at the Toronto Aviation and Aircraft show.

The X-Prize was founded in 1996, in St. Louis, Missouri, to stimulate the creation of a new generation of launch vehicles designed to carry passengers into space, kick-starting the space tourism industry. It’s modeled after the early aviation prizes which did so much to spur the development of airplanes; it’s located in St. Louis partly because of the city’s connection with Charles Lindbergh, who flew across the Atlantic solo in The Spirit of St. Louis in 1927 to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize.

The X-Prize will be awarded to the first privately funded and built spacecraft capable of lifting three humans to a sub-orbital altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometres) on two consecutive flights within two weeks.

The private-funding requirement ensures that a government can’t come in and win the competition by throwing money at it. The 100-kilometre altitude was chosen because it’s above the 80-kilometre altitude that the U.S. Air Force recognizes as worthy of astronaut wings, but not so high that the re-entry speed requires exotic heat-shielding materials. The three-person passenger capability means the winning spacecraft can be immediately turned into a profit-generating tourist vehicle. And the two-week re-flight requirement is designed to keep costs down, because you can’t completely rebuild a vehicle in such a short time–just refuel it and replace a few parts.

There are many different designs among the 20 entries, from the U.S., Canada, Russia, Argentina and the U.K. Canada’s daVinci Project is among the most interesting.

The daVinci Project spacecraft will start its journey at the end of a 300-metre tether attached to a 25-storey hot-air balloon, the world’s largest. At 12,200 metres, the liquid oxygen/kerosene engine of the 7.3-metre, 2,500-kilogram vehicle will fire, first propelling the spacecraft at an angle, to ensure it clears the balloon, then swiveling to send the spacecraft straight up to 120 kilometres. Maximum speed will be four times the speed of sound, or 4,250 kph.

As the spacecraft descends, a “ballute”–a large inflatable cone, a cross between a balloon and a parachute–will deploy over the rocket’s descending end, stabilizing it and protecting it from the heat of reentry. Somewhere between 7500 and 3000 metres, a flyable parafoil will deploy, and the rocket will glide down to a landing zone somewhere in Western Canada.

Riding the rocket will be Canada’s first private astronautm Brian Feeney, 42, a Toronto-based industrial designer.

The daVinci Project has already completed final engine and flight guidance systems testing. The engineering prototype will be used this summer to test the ballute and parafoil.

The Canadian Arrow, based in London, Ontario, is a modernized version of the V-2 missile developed by Germany during the Second World War. The 54-foot two-stage rocket will use a copy of the V-2 rocket engine for its first stage; the second stage, containing the crew, will separate and soar to the required 100-kilometre altitude using four rockets of the type fighter planes use for extra-quick takeoffs. A ballute will slow its descent enough to open three parachutes, which will deposit it to a traditional splashdown.

The X-Prize-competing teams around the world are working hard, and some, like the daVinci Project, could be within a couple of years of launch. The moment one of them succeeds, our thinking about space travel will undergo a profound change.

I’ve wanted to go into space my whole life. Now it looks like someday I might actually get my wish–and I could have Canadians to thank for it.

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