Published online 2 August 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040802-2

News

Wild Fire joins private space race

But SpaceShipOne's competitor needs more funds to make its bid for the X prize.

The da Vinci Project, a competitor in the International X PRIZE Competition.The da Vinci Project, a competitor in the International X PRIZE Competition.© The da Vinci Project

According to rocketeer Brian Feeney, the race for the X prize is far from over. Wild Fire, the sleek, crimson rocket he plans to unveil this Thursday, could yet scoop the US$10-million space trophy.

The X-prize jackpot, created to kick-start space tourism, will be awarded to the first privately funded, piloted craft to reach space twice in two weeks, carrying a pilot and the weight equivalent of two passengers. Until now, the spotlight has fallen squarely on SpaceShipOne, the brainchild of aerospace designer Burt Rutan. Last week, Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites announced that their craft would make its first competition flight on 29 September, following the successful trial run in June.

Feeney's da Vinci Project team is based in Toronto, Canada. He claims he could give Rutan a run for his money, but he needs half a million dollars to fund Wild Fire's test flight. If a donor steps up, "we're gonna go for it as hard and as fast as we possibly can", he says.

Craft comparison

Wild Fire's tactics for reaching space are slightly different from those of SpaceShipOne, which is a cool, white combination of rocket and aeroplane. Wild Fire resembles a scarlet ballistic missile that will hurtle upwards, release the pilot's capsule and land using parachutes. Feeney plans to pilot the rocket himself.

To reduce the weight of fuel they need, both the prototype spacecraft hitch a lift for part of the way. SpaceShipOne does this hugged to the stomach of an aeroplane; Wild Fire aims to piggy-back over 24 kilometres strapped to a giant helium balloon.

“The excitement and buzz it creates may be the most important thing it does”


Roger Launius. Historian at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC.

Like its competitor, Wild Fire employs a powerful hybrid engine that burns a mix of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, and a solid fuel. Feeney is revealing little about the exact fuel cocktail or other details, making it hard for others to judge how successful he might be.

The biggest difference between the two rockets is cost. SpaceShipOne's price-tag of over US$20 million is thought cheap compared to government-financed manned space flight. But Wild Fire has got by with around US$350,000 and many volunteer hours. Feeney calls his rocket a David to SpaceShipOne's Goliath.

The Wild Fire team, and the one or two other X-prize competitors nearing completion, are already handicapped, because they have to give 60 days' notice before launching a qualifying flight. But if unforeseen delays trip up SpaceShipOne, then Feeney believes that the contest might open up. "It's not over until it's over," he says.

Great divide

Whoever gets there first, space flight experts say that there is a huge technological leap between skimming into space for a few minutes in Rutan's or Feeney's rocket, and reaching the height and speed to enter orbit or beyond. "I'm sceptical that flying barely into space will take us far down that road," says space history expert Roger Launius of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Even so, the hype around the X prize is creating ripples throughout the space research community, Launius says, by demonstrating that there may be technological and financial routes into space that differ from those used in the past. "The excitement and buzz it creates may be the most important thing it does," he says. 

Roger Launius. Historian at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC.