Space Race II: The Big Gamble

By IRENE MONA KLOTZ, United Press International  |  Aug. 10, 2004 at 12:27 PM
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A weekly series by United Press International exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight.


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Aug. 10 (UPI) -- Brian Feeney hoped it would happen, planned for it to happen and when it finally did happen, he was ready.

"We got our money," Feeney told X-Prize Foundation head Peter Diamandis in a telephone call last week. "We're giving notice."

The call put the foundation on official notice that Feeney's team, the da Vinci Project of Toronto, was 60 days away from an attempt to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which is to be awarded to the first privately funded, three-passenger ship to reach suborbital space twice within two weeks.

The da Vinci Project is the second entrant in the contest. With several test flights under its belt, the first contender is Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., started by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aircraft designer Burt Rutan.

"Everybody loves a horserace," Diamandis said in an interview with United Press International.

What put Feeney's team into the running was a cash donation -- amount undisclosed -- by a company that makes a living taking gambles: Golden, an online gaming entity licensed by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission in the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake, Canada. It is operated by Richard Rowe, founder and chief executive officer in Guernsey, United Kingdom.

Rowe intends for Golden to become the first casino in space.

"They heard about us through the media," said Feeney, who had said during a news conference last month the only thing keeping his team from flying was money.

At that time, Feeney said he needed about $500,000 to make the two required X Prize flights. He declined to comment about the terms of his sponsor's contribution.

"It was the call to arms that made it happen. They heard both about the opportunity and the need for money and came right at us, guns blazing," Feeney told UPI.

In a matter of hours, the deal was put together, leaving the X Prize Foundation with the very real logistical issue of overseeing two or more space launches within a matter of days at sites about 2,000 miles apart.

SpaceShipOne, the entry by Scaled Composites, and its jet carrier White Knight, are to take off Sept. 29 from the Mojave Airport Civilian Test Center, located north of Los Angeles.

Wild Fire, the da Vinci Project entry, is carried by a giant, reusable helium balloon to an altitude of 80,000 feet before its engine ignites. It is scheduled for a debut flight from a small airport in Kindersley, Saskatchewan.

Rutan would like to win the X Prize with a second SpaceShipOne flight Oct. 4. Feeney said his team is not sure how long it will take to recycle Wild Fire and its balloon launcher for a second flight, but it could be as soon as seven to 12 days after the initial voyage.

The X Prize Foundation will have panels of at least three judges stationed at each location to oversee the flights. Beyond that, "wait and see," said Gregg Maryniak, foundation executive director.

With two teams in the running, the X Prize is taking on tones of the race that served as its role model -- the $25,000 Orteig prize claimed by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 for the first New York-to-Paris non-stop flight.

Lindbergh was the underdog in that contest, which was financed by prominent New York hotelier Raymond Orteig. At the time, Lindbergh was a 25-year-old pilot with Robertson Aircraft Corp., whose job was to deliver the mail. He persuaded a group of St. Louis businessmen to donate funds for his flight and registered as a contestant for the race. He was the only one planning to fly solo in a single-engine plane, a craft that was designed and built in 60 days by Ryan Airlines Inc. of San Diego.

No one thought Lindbergh had a chance against the more experienced, well-funded teams, which included explorer Richard E. Byrd, who later went on to fly over the North Pole, and aviator Clarence Chamberlin.

Lindbergh's landing in Paris forever changed the way people thought of airplanes. Diamandis, who got the idea for the X Prize after reading "The Spirit of St. Louis," Lindbergh's Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, likes to point out that the year before Lindbergh's transatlantic flight about 6,000 people a year flew in airplanes. By 1928, that number had rocketed to 180,000.

During the long, cold flight over the Atlantic, no one knew what was happening to Lindbergh. Several aviators in the race had lost their lives and Lindbergh refused to carry a radio with him during the voyage. The 21st century race will have quite a different flavor.

Feeney, who will pilot Wild Fire, will be bringing a laptop with him to place an online bet at his sponsor's Web site.

"It's obviously the early days of pioneering private manned spaceflight, so it's the early days of, let's call it, entertainment in space. Why are we going up there? We're going as human beings to experience a new realm of living, a new way of living, new experiences. This activity and many others are going to continue to present themselves and be executed over time," Feeney said.

Gambling in space may not have been exactly what Diamandis and the X Prize Foundation organizers had in mind when they launched the competition to open space for commercial and private ventures. At least Feeney's new sponsor is not planning to repeat its last stunt. During the final round of the U.S. Open golf tournament last year, a topless woman approached one of the players on the 11th hole. Written across her back were the words of her sponsor:


Irene Klotz writes about space and aviation for UPI Science News. Email

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