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October Sky: Amateur Rocket Prize Deadline Looms

By Andrew Bridges Pasadena Bureau Chief
posted: 01:07 pm ET 07 October 2000

UK Rocket Test for X PRIZE Succeeds X-Prize Contender Set for Test Flight Thursday Starchaser Blasts Ahead of Competition for X PRIZE Two New Contestants Join X-Prize Race

Three years after it was first announced, a $250,000 prize to the first amateur team of rocketeers to launch a payload into space may well go unclaimed. The Cheap Access To Space (CATS) prize expires on November 8, leaving precious little time for a handful of teams to meet its daunting challenge: launch a 4.4-pound (2-kilogram) payload to an altitude of 124 miles (200 kilometers). "That’s a hard deadline. There are no extensions," said James George, contest administrator of the Space Frontier Foundation. A consolation prize – $50,000 – awaits the first team to make it to 74 miles (120 kilometers).

JP Aerospace test launch

When the foundation unveiled the challenge in November 1997 on behalf of the Foundation for the International Non-governmental Development of Space (FINDS), the 15 or so teams then vying for the prize cried foul that the prize administrators demanded a month’s notice in advance of any launch attempt. "The big argument was they were going to make everyone wait 30 days after they announced it before they could launch," said John Powell of JP Aerospace, a CATS competitor that was unable to receive federal clearance to launch this month. "Now it’s three years later and no one has come close." Now, on the homestretch, just three of the original 15 teams plan launch attempts over the course of the next month. "The foundation has chosen really well, because the small prize for the 120kilometer shot is so small it’s hardly worthwhile – it's a good consolation prize if you don’t make the big prize, but it's not worth mounting a whole campaign for. But the big prize is quite difficult. It’s very much the high ground," said Jeppe Locht, president of the Danish Space Challenge, which will launch its 24-foot (7.4meter) rocket from Greenland on November 1. The team successfully test-fired the rocket’s engine twice on Friday in preparation for the launch, said Locht, who works as a Danish television journalist. Greg Allison, of the High Altitude Research Corporation (HARC), said he will launch his "rockoon" – a balloon-rocket hybrid – from a ship in the Gulf of Mexico on October 28. A 200-foot (60-meter) balloon will carry HARC’s rocket to an altitude of approximately 75,000 feet (22.5 kilometers) before launching it into space. "We’ve got a good shot at it," Allison said in an interview from Huntsville, Alabama. "But this is the rocketry business, where the first launch of new designs is always risky. Even for the big boys, who put billions of dollars into it, they go off like firecrackers." Mojave, California-based Interorbital Systems plans to launch from a Pacific Ocean platform during the first week in November, cutting it close to – and perhaps even slipping beyond – the contest deadline. "We’re launching regardless of the prize," said Interorbital’s Randa Milliron, in a telephone message left with SPACE.com. Other teams have been beset by a litany of problems, hardly the least of which – said Powell of Davis, California-based JP Aerospace – has been government bureaucracy. Powell had hoped to claim the CATS $50,000 consolation prize this past weekend with a rocket launched from Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. However, his team heard October 2 from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) that they would not be issued a waiver in time for the launch. "We’re kind of mugged in the meadow here," Powell said.

A spokesman for the AST in Washington, D.C. said the office was not geared to contest deadlines in reviewing applications for launch licenses and waivers. "Our priority is safety and we won’t compromise on that because of a deadline," the spokesman said. Ky Michaelson, of the Civilian Space Xploration Team, said the CATS prize has ironically stifled many challengers, since the contest unwittingly drew increased FAA attention. "The CATS prize actually made it more difficult, because before there were no rules – we’d just go to the FAA and get a waiver," Michaelson said. "It’s put us under more scrutiny." Michaelson recently made a licensed stab at collecting the CATS prize, but his "Space Shot 2000" rocket lost a fin at an estimated 40,000 feet (12 kilometers). The Bloomington, Minnesota team does not plan any further launch attempts until June 2001, well after the contest deadline, he said. Indeed, the demands of the CATS prize may outstrip the resources an amateur effort can bring to bear on the challenge, said one rocket industry executive. "You’re at a point you’re really pushing it in terms of financial wherewithal," said Bob Conger, vice president and program manager for the Scorpius project at orbital and suborbital rocket-maker, Microcosm Inc. of El Segundo, California. "With volunteers, they have plenty of sweat labor, but they don’t have the coins to throw into the pot. These are significantly expensive endeavors. It’s like the XPRIZE, even if you win, it’s not going to cover your costs." A scaled-up version of CATS, the $10-million X-PRIZE will go to the first team to fly a reusable rocket twice within two weeks to 62 miles (100 kilometers) or higher. The craft must also be privately financed and able to carry three passengers.

FUTURE SPACE Coming Thursday: Find out how anti-matter could be used to fuel future spacecraft.

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