Tim Furniss/LONDON

Sixteen organisations in Argentina, the UK and the USA are competing for a $10 million prize to be won by becoming the first to finance privately and build a spacecraft which can carry three people on a suborbital flight to an altitude of 100km. The prize can be claimed by making two flights in a period of two weeks.

The award is being offered by the X-Prize Foundation of St Louis, Missouri, a non-profit organisation funded by private donations. It is patterned after the $25,000 Orteig International Prize, won 70 years ago by Charles Lindbergh for his solo flight from New York to Le Bourget, Paris. Over $1 million has already been raised by the Foundation, and further funding will be generated by sponsorships.

The goal of the X-Prize is "-to challenge the best engineers and innovators to build a spacecraft that eventually could be used to develop a commercial space-transportation and tourism industry". The Foundation is trying to support an existing market and to kick-start a new one (tourism), which major aerospace companies do not have the will or investment to achieve.

Most of the competitors, however, are those already aiming to capture some of the perceived commercial market for the launching of small communications-satellite constellations into low-Earth orbit. The vehicle would require major modifications to carry passengers. Others include the UK's Steven Bennett, whose Starchaser rockets have caught public imagination on their short test flights. Some competitors are private individuals who seemingly have a long way to go yet.

One of the larger X-Prize competitors is Burt Rutan, of Scaled Composites, builder of the Voyager aircraft which made the first non-stop flight around the world. He believes that the lure of qualifying for astronauts' wings is strong enough for the X-Prize to be won by 2000. In the longer term, many companies believe that space tourism could start within ten years and eventually there could be space hotels, trips to and from which would cost around $20,000.

Given the initial investment required by the competitors to develop their vehicles, probably on the back of confirmed launch bookings for small satellites, for the X-Prize to be a real stimulus for the private operators, an extra nought on the end of its $10 million prize money would not go amiss.




Herndon, Virginia: Rick Fleeter.

Fleeter has built small satellites and subsystems and has completed more than 60 successful test firings of the PA-X motor for his X-Prize proposal at Edwards AFB, California.

The unique PA-X injector is cooled using liquid oxygen, providing "excellent" thermal-protection margins, he says

The low-cost combustion chamber is built from a carbon/epoxy-overwrapped silica-phenolic liner which ablatively cools the chamber. These and other innovative design elements provide high performance for much less cost than comparable engines, Fleeter says. Initial tests of the PA-X engine, operating at 10.4bar (150lb/in2) chamber pressure, generated 55kN (12,500lb) of sea-level thrust.

AeroAstro will soon begin testing a new, lighter, version of the injector. During this next round of testing, the engine will be tested at 115kN sea-level thrust. This expanded operational range is allowed by slight modifications to the injector and demonstrates an advantage of liquid-oxygen cooling technology. Details of X-Prize proposal are not available.


Bristol Spaceplanes

Ashford has designed a re-usable spaceplane for space tourism. His Spacebus and Spacecab proposal envisages a two-stage system, using off-the-shelf turbojet and rocket engines. In the shorter term, he is promoting a demonstrator called the Ascender.

This would take off conventionally, powered by turbojet and rocket engines, reaching a sub-orbital altitude of 80km. It could carry four people - or science payloads being offered 2min of microgravity time. The 4,000kg Ascender uses a conventional aluminium airframe and has a maximum speed of Mach 4.4. The mass-propellant ratio would be 54%


Dynamica Research

Houston, Texas: Norman LaFave.

LaFave holds over 60 patents for disc-planform aircraft. The former NASA and Lockheed Martin engineer's Cosmos Mariner proposal resembles the early lifting bodies.

The Cosmos Mariner is a prototype single-stage launch vehicle satisfying the criteria of the competition. It will be the testbed for enabling technologies necessary to decrease the cost of launching payloads into orbit, the company says.

The Cosmos Mariner "-is a convenient, flexible, scalable and inexpensive spaceplane concept designed for operation at airports, making maximum use of conventional air-traffic control during atmospheric flight," the company says.

Major design characteristics include horizontal take-off and landing with turbojet engines. A yet-to-be-specified turbojet-fuel-powered rocket engine and the turbojet engines use the same fuel, which simplifies tank arrangements. Dynamica says that the spaceplane "-can be tested as an aircraft before making a launch to space". The ßexible design is claimed to allow the testing of new technologies and operations concepts.



Redwood Shores, California: Gary Hudson, Bevin McKinney.

Hudson was the original designer of what became the McDonnell Douglas DC-X, and McKinney developed the DM-O hybrid-propulsion system for American Rocket. The company has developed a new monopropellant rocket engine, tankage and support systems for the Kistler launch vehicle. Its X-Prize design is the Roton X being developed by an associate company, Rotary Rocket.

The Roton, which has an aerospike engine, will be launched vertically and will deploy rotors after re-entering the Earth's atmosphere and land as an unpowered helicopter. The external rotors forego the need to have fuel aboard during the descent, as the natural rotation of the blades creates a slow, controlled landing. Vertical descent also minimises land overflight and sonic booms. The liquid-oxygen/kerosene aerospike engine uses a rotor for the centrifugal pumping of propellants to pressurise the engine's combustion chambers.

Scaled Composites will be the integrating contractor.


Kelly Space and Technology

San Bernardino, California: Michael Kelly.

Kelly - founded by two former TRW executives - is developing the Eclipse satellite launch vehicle and has an $89 million contract to launch 20 Iridium satellites for Motorola on ten flights of the Eclipse, on completing construction of the craft.

The 38m-long Eclipse E-100 Astroliner will be towed to an altitude of 45,000ft (13,700m) by a Boeing 747 before its Russian NK-33 engine is ignited. It will then be flown to 400,000ft, where the spaceplane will deploy the Thiokol Star 48B and Star 63F solid-propellant second and third stages and their Iridium payloads. The Eclipse will then glide back to Earth. Other possibilities for the first-stage-engine role are the Rocketdyne Aerospike, or RS-27 engines, or the Russian NPO Energia RD-108. First launches are planned for 1999.

Kelly claims that the launches will cost about $10 million each. Towed proving flights, funded by a US Government grant of $110,000, will use a modified US Air Force Convair QF-106 fighter and a Lockheed C-141 cargo aircraft from Edwards AFB, California.

The fighter may be used to launch small science payloads on suborbital missions, to be followed by launches of 100kg satellites under the name Eclipse Sprint, aboard small rockets deployed from the QF-106. Full development of the $130 million Eclipse Astroliner will follow. Universal Space Lines of Newport Beach, California will develop and operate the Eclipse flight operations.


Pioneer Rocketplane

Lakewood, Colorado: Robert Zubrin.

Zubrin led the design team on Lockheed Martin's proposed Black Colt aerial-refuelled spaceplane which has become the prototype of the Pioneer Rocketplane's Pathfinder craft. Pioneer requires $6 million funding for detailed design and $100 million to build, test and begin operations.

The two-crew Pathfinder combines Pratt & Whitney F100-200 turbofan engines and a Russian NPO Energomash RD-120 liquid-oxygen/kerosene engine. The craft would take off conventionally, loaded with its kerosene fuel, but would take on liquid oxygen from an aircraft using probe-to-drogue system. The Pathfinder's rocket engine would then be ignited and it would head for space.

The craft would be built by Scaled Composites, using an all-composite structure and alumina enhanced thermal-protection tiles. It would re-enter the Earth's atmosphere at Mach 12 and has already been proposed for satellite launches, costing $4-5 million for a 1,000kg payload. This compares with $23 million for a launch aboard Orbital Sciences' Taurus booster.

Pioneer is already one of four companies to receive a NASA contract to design the Bantam low-cost launch system. It has an agreement with Thiokol, which will provide six Star 20 motors for testing of Bantam demonstrators, if the Pathfinder is one of the two chosen contractors by this Phase 2 stage of testing. Thiokol would supply larger upper-stage motors.


Scaled Composites

Mojave, California: Burt Rutan.

Scaled Composites built the aeroshell for the former McDonnell Douglas DC-X technology demonstrator and builds the wings for the Orbital Sciences Pegasus satellite launcher. Rutan has not revealed the design of his X-Prize contender.



Advent Launch Services, Houston, Texas: James Akkerman.

Akkerman has worked for NASA since the Project Apollo days.


Micky Bagero

Military officer stationed in Germany.


Discraft, Portland, Oregon: John Bloomer.

Bloomer is an aerospace engineer who worked on Project Apollo.


Graham Dorrington, Stuttgart, Germany.

Has designed the "X-Vehicle".


Earth SpaceTransport System, Highlands Ranch, Colorado: William Good.

Provides computer consulting and programming to aerospace companies.


Pablo De leon and Associates, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

De Leon worked on the first Argentine-made payload to fly on the Space Shuttle.


Pan Aero, Former president of Third Millennium Aerospace and staff scientist at NASA.


Starchaser Foundation

Bennett has developed and test fired several small hybrid rockets.


Paul Tyron, Hazelwood, Montana.

Aeronautical engineer with former McDonnell Douglas and Bell.

Source: Flight International