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Flight's 2nd century: Seeking the X Prize

By IRENE MONA KLOTZ, UPI Science News   |   Sept. 12, 2003 at 2:00 PM   |   Comments

This is the first in a weekly series of UPI articles examining the forthcoming second century of human flight, which will begin on Dec. 17, 2003, with the centennial celebration of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

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CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (UPI) -- Beyond the fame and the glory -- and the difficulties and danger -- many pioneers of aviation focused their eyes on a prize. Beginning in 1903, when the Wright Brothers made history with the first powered flight, and for the next several decades, more than 100 cash incentives were dangled before entrepreneurs who dared to reach for aviation milestones.

Charles Lindbergh became the best-known prizewinner, snagging the $25,000 Raymond Orteig Prize when he flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. That would be like winning a $1.7-million jackpot in today's dollars.

The tradition continues as a 200-pound, 5-foot trophy and $10-million purse await the first company that can fly three people twice in two weeks to the edge of space in a privately-developed craft -- as long as the feat is accomplished by Dec. 31, 2004.

"We're pretty sure someone is going to win it," said Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the X Prize Foundation in St. Louis, which is sponsoring the award.

"We've already started work on a replica trophy," Maryniak told United Press International. He said the St. Louis Science Center has been displaying the prototype, which it will keep for its collection.

Officially, 24 teams are in the running, though some of the most advanced work is thought to be underway by publicity shunners who may not even meet the foundation's disclosure requirements to claim the X Prize.

That might be fitting, because the real value of the flight probably is its ability to attract investor dollars to the unproven but potentially lucrative business of commercial space travel. A few companies are so confident they already are making reservations and taking deposits for suborbital rocket rides, estimated to cost about $100,000 each.

Among the most promising ventures is Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, a rocket ship paired with a twin-engine turbojet called White Knight as its first stage. Rutan has designed, built and flown 38 aircraft, including Voyager, the only plane to fly non-stop around the globe without refueling -- and garnering him the coveted Robert J. Collier Trophy in the process.

Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, headquartered near Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert, faces heady competition from at least three X-Prize contenders:

--Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas, which is building a unusual single-stage ship that burns hydrogen peroxide;

--Bristol Spaceplanes of England, offering the Ascender, a small, high-altitude airplane fitted with jet engines and a rocket motor, and

--Canadian Arrow of Toronto, testing a two-stage, vertical-take-off vehicle modeled after a World War II-era German V-2 rocket.

"Basically these are ships that can be used for space barnstorming," Maryniak said. "The whole point of the X Prize is to change the way people think about spaceflight. Right now, people think it's just about government. We're doing the X Prize to create an initial market of people taking rides to space."

While the U.S. government has accomplished bold and expensive excursions in space over the past 42 years -- the Mercury and Gemini orbital capsules, the Apollo moon landings, the space shuttle and the still-under-construction International Space Station -- private human spaceflight never took root. In contrast, commercial passenger travel by air developed alongside the government's growing aviation investments.

"The breakthroughs in aviation occurred in the 1920s and '30s directly or indirectly as a result of government action," Bob vanderLiden, curator of air transportation at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., told UPI. "We wouldn't have the airlines if you didn't have Uncle Sam paying air mail subsidies and direct subsidies for passenger travel."

For spaceflight, however, the government's efforts may have worked against the development of commercially viable human space travel, said Brian Chase, executive director of the National Space Society in Washington, which has been working to clear regulatory hurdles that threaten to strangle the nascent private space transport industry even before a company steps forward to claim the X Prize.

"We got spoiled with ... the shuttle," Chase told UPI. "We saw that as the norm and we missed building the infrastructure. If we had continued down the path of using Saturn 5 (rockets), Saturn-derivatives and Apollo-class capsules, we might be much farther ahead than where we are now."

Maryniak added: "It's as if we cut out the bottom 10 rungs on the stepladder. To race the Soviets, we just started strapping people to ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles -- the first space boosters) and they started strapping people and that's just no way to run a railroad. It's just too expensive."

As a result, 32 years after the Wright Brothers' flight, Pan Am World Airways and other carriers were ferrying wealthy but ordinary people -- mainly businessmen -- across the country for roughly what an automobile would cost at the time. But 42 years after the debut flights of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and astronaut Alan Shepard, only two private citizens have made the voyage into space -- at a cost of about $20 million a ride.

Perhaps the X Prize will give commercial space programs a much-needed jumpstart. "It's got the potential, but whether it can actually do all that remains to be seen," Chase said. "There's not a lot of trust in space investments right now."

Chase is concerned the government could continue to stymie fledgling space enterprises. For example, turf battles within the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees both commercial air and space flight, have created a critical impasse, which Chase and others are trying to resolve via congressional action.

"We've been telling the FAA and Congress that ... if we don't get a handle on this, there are several other countries who would love to have this industry in their back yards," he said.

At issue: whether the suborbital rocketships are spaceships, in need of a commercial space license for launch, or aircraft, which require millions of dollars worth of vehicle certification. Chase and the X Prize candidates argue because they are willing to launch from certified spaceports, they should be treated as commercial spacecraft and exempt from the aircraft industry safety standards.

"What's frustrating to me is that they want to be regulated. It's the opposite of what most industries want to do," Chase commented. "After overcoming all their technical challenges, it would be a shame if it is the government standing in the way of this new industry ... I'm not sure the Wright Brothers ever would have flown if the U.S. government had to get involved."

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(Editors: UPI photos WAX2003091201, WAX2003091202, WAX2003091203, WAX2003091204 and WAX2003091205 are available)

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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