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An Article from the November 2004 JOM: A Hypertext-Enhanced Article
Maureen Byko is managing editor of JOM.
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SpaceShipOne, the Ansari X Prize, and the Materials of the Civilian Space RaceMaureen Byko
When SpaceShipOne rocketed into history in October (Figure 1), it was not an exhibition of new technology. Far from it. This commercial spacecraft, designed for suborbital flight, had a carbon fiber body fueled by propellants developed in the 1960s. But it was good enough. Good enough to travel 100 km into space. Good enough to return to Earth safely. And good enough to win $10 million and possibly, change the way the world approaches space travel.
“In the space business, historically because it’s been government funded, space engineers have worshipped at the altar of performance,” said Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the X Prize Foundation, which organized the commercial space race. “They have not been cost-constrained as pretty much all other engineers have been.”
“The reason we put this prize on the table was to ultimately lower the cost of access to space.” Maryniak and X Prize Foundation President Peter Diamandis hoped to break the government hold on space exploration worldwide and ultimately, open up avenues to space tourism. The foundation in 1996 announced the X Prize competition, offering $10 million to the first private company to fly a manned rocket 100 km into space with a payload equivalent to the weight of two passengers, and return safely (Figure 2). The feat had to be performed twice within 2 weeks to win. (The contest name was changed to Ansari X Prize in May 2002, when entrepreneurs Anousheh Ansari and Amir Ansari became major financial backers.)
Twenty-six teams from around the world entered the contest; on October 4, Scaled Composites, a California-based company that builds experimental aircraft, won the prize. Matthew Gionta, chief engineer for Scaled Composites, said his team worked long hours to adapt existing materials and technology to this new challenge. The company is owned by aircraft designer Burt Rutan. “Burt’s basic concept is to keep it simple and then make it simpler yet,”Gionta said. “We stick to that.”
A hot air balloon to help launch a rocket? A kite to help land one? Why not some hamsters scampering inside a wheel to generate power? Simplicity took many forms in the Ansari X Prize competition. With no government involvement, private companies used their ingenuity to design entries into the new, budget-conscious space race.
“A prize like this attracts all sorts of different competitors,” said Gionta of Scaled Composites. “Some are qualified to do what they’re about to do and others are very likely going to hurt somebody. And that’s not unlike the earliest days of aviation, either, a little bit of Darwinism, where the strongest survive, the smartest survive.”
All the entries in this survival contest are described on the Ansari X Prize web site, with photos of scale models or computer-generated concepts that give the site the look of a science fiction art gallery. There are ships shaped like discs, spheres, and cigars. One even bears a striking resemblance to the craft built by clay-mation characters Wallace & Gromit in the short film A Grand Day Out. Some of the rockets are constructed of shiny metal, others of smooth composites. Following is a sampling of some Ansari X Prize entries.
PanAero’s design for the Condor-X called for a large wing that would allow the craft to ascend and descend gently (Figure 3a), reducing reentry speeds, g-forces, and heating for a smoother flight. The fabric-covered aluminum truss would have been used as a kite upon descent, when the passenger cabin would have been suspended beneath the craft (Figure 3b) for stabilization. After re-entry, the cabin would have again been raised and locked into position for a smooth landing. Due to a lack of funding, the design was never constructed. The company hopes to adapt it for orbital flight to compete in a newly announced, $50 million contest.
The new version, called SpaceVan 2009, will look more like a regular airplane launched from a carrier craft, said Len Cormier, the leader of the PanAero team. The carrier will have an enormous wing of 1,800 square meters to distribute reentry loads. The orbiter will be largely made of berylliumaluminum-magnesium.
The craft was designed entirely by Cormier, a former NASA employee. Cormier, now 78, has some experience with space competition—he was working for the United States space program when, in October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite and set the first space race in motion. The space race started by the X Prize is friendlier than the one begun in 1957, he said.“We’re as competitive as can be but at the same time there’s a lot of camaraderie,”Cormier said.
At American Advent Launch Services, a methane-fueled rocket engine is envisioned as the power behind a water-based launch of the Advent. The titanium-made vehicle (Figure 4a) will rise out of the Gulf of Mexico to ward off regulatory concerns about safety of the launch and landing, project creator Jim Akkerman said. Akkerman, a retired NASA engineer, is building the rocket with labor and materials either donated or financed out of pocket. He tests the engine in a Texas rice-farmer’s field (Figure 4b).
Akkerman, 67, chose titanium for his rocket because, although it is much harder to work with than aluminum or steel, its benefits outweigh those negative features. “It is compatible with sea water, and doesn’t rust or corrode,” he said. “Second, it’s probably the strongest strength-to-weight ratio, so we can make our tanks relatively thin and they’ll still be strong.” He also said titanium can withstand temperatures of 815°C to 1,100°C and still perform well. Titanium’s performance comes at a cost—about $35 per pound as compared to aluminum’s cost of $2 per pound, Akkerman said. The rocket is expected to weigh 225 kg to 272 kg.
Akkerman has high hopes for commercial space exploration. When people find a way to move through space quickly and safely, the world could benefit in countless ways—speedy transportation of organs for transplant, for example, or new energy sources. “Space is a very real resource,” Akkerman said. “It’s going to be a part of our economy.”
In Romania, the Aeronautics & Cosmonautics Romanian Association (ARCA) team, established by a group of aeronautical engineering students, developed the Orizont with an engine fueled by hydrogen peroxide. The monopropellant engine is reusable and made entirely of composite material—the first of its kind, says Domitru Popescu, leader of the team (Figure 5). The full-scale version of the Orizont spaceship is expected to be unveiled later this year or early next year.
The ARCA team, which receives no government funding, has become the leader in rocket technology in Romania. Popescu said his project has benefited from advances in Romanian technology that were made during the Cold War. He hopes that his team will be on the cutting edge of a new, nonmilitary national industry—commercial space travel.
“Everyone knows that the SpaceShipOne success will open in the future this industry of suborbital travel, so basically we want the same things,” Popescu said.
The daVinci Project, based in Ontario, Canada, planned to float its rocket into the sky by a piloted, reusable helium balloon. The rocket would have launched once the balloon lifted it 24 km. At one time considered a contender for the prize, with an October 2 launch date, the all-volunteer team never completed a test flight and has announced no new plans to continue its work.
The daVinci rocket, Wild Fire, was planned to be fueled by a combination of liquid oxygen and kerosene. It was to be built entirely by volunteers—team leader Brian Feeney, of Toronto, estimated that about 500 people were working on the project.
Scaled Composites, the big-budget competitor in the low-budget space race, dedicated a team of about a dozen engineers to designing and building a unique spaceship. Unlike the other Ansari X Prize entries, this one attracted the financial support of a multimillionaire— Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, sponsored the Scaled Composites effort. Despite that financial advantage, Scaled Composites worked to keep costs down, expending only what was necessary to compete safely and successfully. That meant much new ground had to be broken by the company’s team of engineers.
“There were so many technologies that were not part of our current company when we started,” Gionta said. “The list is so long it’s amazing we’ve actually been successful.” Scaled Composites, for example, had never built a supersonic airplane, never reentered the atmosphere from space, never built a reaction control system to keep a vehicle stable in space, and never built a flight simulator. But through trial and error, all those tasks were accomplished, Gionta said.
The most difficult challenge, by far, though, was building the rocket engine. Rather than launching directly from the earth, NASA-style, the team settled on a two-stage launch system that would demand less power from its rocket engines. SpaceShipOne is carried into the sky under the belly of a manned, twin turbojet aircraft named White Knight (Figure 6). At about 15 km, White Knight releases SpaceShipOne and pulls away. The SpaceShipOne rocket is fired and the ship climbs vertically, past 100 km.
The rocket engine takes up about 75 percent of the volume of the ship, Gionta said, and due to the craft’s unique design, an “off the shelf” engine would not have fit. Ordering an engine custom-built was possible, he said, but too expensive. With some assistance from outside contractors, the engineers at Scaled Composites—who had never built a rocket engine before—designed one for SpaceShipOne. The engine is a hybrid, which means it uses a solid fuel that reacts with a liquid oxidizer. The solid is rubber and the liquid, nitrous oxide. The technology is nothing new, Gionta said, and dates back to the 1960s.
“It’s been abandoned for the most part because it’s not really high performance,” he said. “For the amount of weight of the propellants that you have you can actually make more thrust if you use different materials and use them in a different way. But we’re OK with the fact that they’re not the best. They didn’t have to be for our application.” Space shuttles operate on liquid propellants, a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. For the Scaled Composites team, the hybrid engine operated on fuel that was safe and inexpensive—and it got the job done.
“That’s kind of our point. It doesn’t need to be super-high tech, and superhigh dollars to get into space. It can be low-tech components,” Gionta said. “The rocket engine used a lot of low technology components, and we were just creative about how we used them together.”
Although many of the participants in the X Prize consider NASA to epitomize all that is wrong with space exploration—bureaucracy, uncontrolled spending, and resistance to change— Brant Sponberg has a different vision. Sponberg is manager for NASA’s new Centennial Challenges program, an Ansari X-Prize inspired program that will use competition to spur technology development. When full funding is in place, the program will offer prizes for technological achievements.
“What we’re interested in at NASA is stimulating innovation in ways standard procurements cannot,” he said. Ordinarily, NASA offers grants to researchers or contracts to companies to perform work according to NASA’s specifications. “It assumes that someone here at NASA’s smart enough to decide which one or which few proposals are the best ones and most likely to produce the innovation that you’re looking for,” Sponberg said. “What a prize competition does is really turns that on its head, it says here’s the innovation we’re looking for, here’s how much we’re willing to pay if someone actually came up with that, and anyone and everyone who wants to compete can go for it.”
Prizes focus more attention on the technical problem and do not define how to solve it. They inspire innovation and ingenuity and could involve people who would never bid on a NASA contract, Sponberg said, from computer hackers to university mathematicians. As of November, NASA had just $250,000 budgeted for Centennial Challenges prizes. The challenges have not yet been determined, Sponberg said, but probably will be announced by the end of 2004 or early in 2005. He is hoping for a multimillion dollar allocation from Congress in 2005.
To prepare for the program, a group of scientists and space experts gathered in July to brainstorm ideas for the new challenges. NASA is whittling down its options from some 300 possibilities, Sponberg said. Among the challenges participants might face:
Gregg Maryniak of the X Prize Foundation believes the benefits of the contest will not end when Scaled Composites deposits its $10 million prize in the corporate account. “The reason we put this prize on the table was to ultimately lower the cost of access to space, which has huge societal benefits,” Maryniak said. “We’re surrounded by an ocean of resources that is literally unlimited.”
Many of the low-budget Ansari X Prize contenders have visions of a better world where space travel is affordable and accessible—they hope for new sources of energy or water, access to minerals unavailable on earth, speedy medical responses worldwide, and improved telecommunications, for starters.
All of these are well in the future, and some may be unrealistic. But James Clark, executive director of World Technology Network, believes the Ansari X Prize extended an invitation to imagine that was long overdue.“The absence of these competitions was in many ways depressing,” he said.“It’s probably better that people are dreaming big again than not.”
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