Up-words - The X Prize Files

Up-words- The Best of the Paper Issues of This way up 2002-10

The X Prize Files

February 2003

By Matt Salusbury

Once again, science fact is proving to be stranger than science fiction. You may have read press reports on a real-live rocket called Thunderbird, which a British team working just outside Manchester are hoping to put into space sometime later this year. (The press have been a little too enthusiastic in their patriotism here - it¹s a British team making the engines for an American team based in Virginia. It¹s a similar deal to British films.). Thunderbird¹s final pre-launch test firing is due to take place somewhere in the great Australian desert near Woomera in March, and space pilot Steve Bennett¹s Starch Asher Industries team that are putting the project together is the favourite to take the X-Prize.

Nothing to do with Mulder and Scully, the X-Prize is a $10 million pay-out to the first team who can put a space craft 100km into space, with three passengers, bring it down again and safely repeat the feat using the same equipment two weeks later. All the entrants are private companies, and the prize is designed to stimulate the space tourism industry, as well as cheap satellite delivery and - I¹m not making this up - same-day freight forwarding! Presumably, there¹s people out there who are happy to pay an awful lot of money to get their documents delivered by hand from London to Sydney in a couple of hours.
The X-Prize takes its inspiration from the prize that was offered for the first non-stop air crossing of the Atlantic back in the 1920s, a prize taken by Charles Lindenburgh in Spirit of St Louis. As well as freight forwarding, the sponsors - who include Arthur C Clarke and the thriller writer Tom  Clancey - have the stated aim of creating a new generation of heroes. UK press coverage has focussed on the plucky Brits who are in the running to take the prize - Thunderbird and the Bristol-based space plane Ascender, which continues the city of Bristol’s tradition of aeronautics going back to the Rolls Royce aero-engine factory.
So far so inspiring, and some of the contestants for the X-Prize are getting into the Right Stuff spirit with evocative names like Proteus, Starchaser, Pathfinder. Most of the entrants featured in the press so far have been designed following tried and tested ideas - going up in a re-useable vertical take-off rocket (as in Russia`s Soyuz programme) or taking off from a runway in space plane¹ - a scaled-down space shuttle. So far, so predictable.
But weirder forces are at work down among the sheds, hangars and warehouses where the magnificent men in their flying machines are at work tinkering away at their pet projects. Up there with the romantic names are bizarrely mundane names chosen by teams - Space Tourist, Thrifty Space and Scaled Components. Look closely at the list of proud sponsors, and you¹ll see that one of the biggest spenders is the director of a Mid-West car hire company.  Rubbing shoulders with the stargazing poster boys, their eyes fixed on the Final Frontier, there¹s the spirit of EasyJet or The Cannonball Run as much as the Spirit of St Louis.
There are some truly inspiring attempts to get into space on the cheap. One X-Prize entrant, Sabre, is just a souped-up Air Force surplus fighter jet. Another team plans to go up in a modified jet to be refuelled by a hired military refuelling plane on the edge of the atmosphere, while yet another plans to glide most of the way up, towed by a Boeing before it fires its engines at the last minute.  The Romanians are getting in on the act with ARCA - their last-minute extremely simple entry, which resembles the conventional three stages of a rocket rammed onto a pole like lumps of cheese jammed onto a cocktail stick. It certainly wouldn¹t leave much room for top-dollar paying space tourists to bounce around in zero gravity.
Fans of Star Trek will notice the resemblance to the guy who turned an old nuclear missile into the first warp drive rocket in First Contact, but such approaches aren`t so science fiction anymore. The non-profit Planetary Society recently sent its solar yacht Star Sailor into space as the modified warhead of an ICBM launched from a Russian submarine in the Arctic.
Perhaps the most inspired space or bust X-Prize attempt to get into orbit on the cheap will float up tethered to the world¹s largest hot air balloon and fire its engines as it scrapes the upper atmosphere. This is where the X-Prize really revives the true romance of space - not in the boring sensible approaches, which will probably take the prize, but in the utterly bizarre also-rans with their baroque Jules Verne weirdness machines. A look at the plans is enough to make the jaw drop in disbelief and raise the question `Why?` Well, why go into space the obvious way when you can do it in style. Some of these guys seem to have been inspired more by Wacky Races than by The Right Stuff. While looking at some team specifications, you get the sneaking suspicion that they aren¹t going into space at all, they¹re just taking the piss.
Take for example, Lucky Seven, the pet project of a millionaire. Its web page shows just one illustration of a 1950s  B-movie  sci-fi pointy silver rocket lander, complete with those long 1950s table legs for it to land on. The craft is depicted resting in some green field with a happy blonde couple running arm in arm towards it, like some illustration out of a Jehovah¹s Witness pamphlet. I¹m no rocket scientist, but the specs are a bit vague on how exactly it¹s going to get up and come down again. Someone else appears to be having a laugh with us on the X-Prize site, because the third UK entry is just given as Professor Dorrington, and shows grainy old black and white photos of a man in a pullover tinkering around with motors from some ante-Deluvian British rocket programme from way back when, and there¹s no contact details.
But the possible X-Prize piss-takers are not as funny as the deadly serious but deadly weird entries. Take Advent  for example, one of the many Canadian entries (,for some reason the Canadians are very well-represented in this enterprise). Advent  launches vertically from the surface of the Atlantic, leaving behind the world¹s biggest water bubble as its engines fire. This isn¹t actually as daft as it seems - in the last days of the Soviet Union, the Energian corporation experimented with sea-based launch platforms for much bigger craft. Then there¹s TGV  Rocket, which after a relatively conventional launch, bursts out into a sort of giant umbrella shape so it can gradually descend in the manner of Mary Poppins  - or something like that, anyway. Whatever the physics behind it, its a very beautiful craft to behold.
There¹s also Space Tourist, another space plane with a discoid shape - it resembles a cross between a flying saucer and a Stealth fighter. Then there¹s the plucky little Argentinean rocket Gauchito (Little Cowboy), which shows that, even in these troubled times, there¹s a Third World country getting in on the space act. Late entries for the X-Prize are popping up all the time. One of the new hopefuls is Armadillo, a Texas-based project. It should take the prize for sheer optimism. Still very much at the concept stage, the only photo so far released shows a grinning astronaut in a crash helmet strapped into a chair, which is mounted on a frame with wheels and a couple of fuel pipes and nozzles behind him which end at a couple of fuel tanks. The safety of space flight is on our minds after the recent Columbia disaster, but let¹s not forget that a lot of the people behind these projects intend to pilot their craft into space themselves - twice. It¹s much easier to be absolutely sure about how safe your homemade space ship is with a couple of friends in a hangar than with a whole politically-charged bureaucracy like NASA.

The shuttle disaster has, if anything, given a boost to the X-Prize. The Russians at Baikanour are taking up the slack from the grounded shuttles and are using all their flights to bring up astronauts to the International Space Station, so they¹ve cancelled all the tourist flights. The likes of South African millionaire Martin Shuttleworth and that bloke out of N Sync who was supposed to be going up on Soyuz for $13 million could probably get better value for money from some cut-price Romanian RyanAir-type trip anyway. Optimistic projections anticipate  15,000 space tourists going up there by 2021, generating a  total of $700 million.

There is also - as I discovered - a Dick Dastardly element to all these cute Wacky Races. A colleague was inquiring as to the exact date of Thunderbird¹s  earlier first test-firing somewhere in the Nevada desert. Starchaser Industries refused to give details of the day or venue for `security reasons`. An organisation like Al-Qe¹eda could, I realised, very easily commission an X-Prize space tourism vehicle and at the last minute turn it into one hell of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD). Presumably, NASA¹s space-tracking facilities are keeping a very close eye on X-Prize entries, looking for signs of a lot of mullahs suddenly turning up at the hangar, or of teams suddenly cancelling at the last minute.
Come to  think of it, the X-Prize could offer a face-saving way out of Saddam Hussein`s little (alleged) WMD problem. He could come clean at the last minute and say to UN Chief Inspector Hans Blix: “ Whoa! Whoa! OK guys, you got me. Iraq¹s building a late entry for the X-Prize! We want to promote space tourism and freight forwarding, and we badly need ten million bucks.” And George W. Bush would have no choice but to let him go ahead with his space rocket made from eight Scuds stuck together end-to-end, controlled by a cluster of a dozen Play Station 2¹s (if rumours are to be believed).
The recent shuttle disaster hides the fact that there is a space renaissance going on, and for a change it ain¹t an American one. The European Space Agency’s projects are getting increasing ambitious - it¹s planning to land a probe on a comet in a couple of years, and no one seems to have noticed they¹ve just launched the first in a series of robot cargo carriers to deliver supplies to the International Space Station(ISS). In view of NASA grounding the shuttles, this could just end up saving the ISS¹s ass. China has just successfully completed the last in a series of test-launches of Shongzhou -  a scaled-down copy of Soyuz - and hopes to send a man into space some time soon. Expect to see more private vehicles like the X-Prize pack taking up the slack as NASA gets cold feet and its budget goes instead on half a dozen simultaneous wars with all the countries beginning with the letter I. Expect also to see more of the Third World mini-nuclear powers putting people into space on the cheap - hell, if Argentina can do it, why not Israel and Pakistan. If they concentrated on a space race instead of a nuclear arms race, we¹d all be happy.
The X-Prize brings to life the old sci-fi dream of people going into space in little homemade craft made in their sheds with the help of eccentric uncles, like so many comic books back in the 1940s or 1950s, or going back even earlier to the original Flash Gordon, when Dr Zarkoff heads for Mars in a back-firing rocket ship the size of a school bus and held together with rivets.  Curiously, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts (AAA)- the anarchist collective who have done so much to promote the idea of a people¹s space  programme without governments or militarism - are not happy with the X-Prize. They see it as a surrender to commercialism, a sell-out to capitalism. To reflect their own philosophy of raves and sex in space, they have offered their own XXX Prize for the first team to successfully perform a sex act in the zero gravity of space - with no restrictions on the number of people involved.

The X-Prize, for all its macho rocketry and explosions, for all its thrust and adrenalin and noise and bravado and danger, has a sop to environmentalism in its rules. The space flight up to 100km altitude has to be repeated again two weeks later to promote the use of re-usable components. Not that the cash-strapped contestants need much encouragement to save on expensive bits like boosters. But the whole  X-Prize circus may prove to be the last flowering of the romance of rocketry anyway. In Seattle, a company called High Lift Systems are in all seriousness putting together another science fiction dream: a giant space elevator to carry people and freight from a sea platform in Ecuador to a counterweight 100,000km up in space. By around 2020, the golden age of cut-price water-launched giant discoid hot air balloon-assisting umbrella-descending rockets built in people¹s garages will have burned itself out, the deafening roar of rocket engines replaced with a recorded voice saying “Stand clear of the doors, please.”

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