In the May 2003 issue, POPULAR SCIENCE showcased several of the groups vying for the X Prize, a $10 million award that will go to the first privately financed team that manages to launch a manned spacecraft to an altitude of 62.5 miles, then repeat the feat within two weeks. X Prize founder Peter Diamandis doesn’t expect all of the 24 contenders to produce a finished craft, much less succeed. Their engineering approaches range widely, from runway takeoffs to balloon launches. Here are the plans of a few of the teams that received little or no mention in the original article.
Method 30-ft. rocket stands on four 5-ft. leg fins and launches vertically.
The Team Mickey Badgero, a former U.S. Air Force computer programmer, is building the craft, named the Lucky Seven, in his garage.
Backgrounder The rocket is to zip past the X-Prize altitude in a little over 3 minutes. Upon reentry, a parachute will slow its descent. Rather than dropping down randomly, the craft will deploy a parasail from its nose cone; then, aided by a GPS navigation system, the rocket will cruise back to a vertical landing at the launch site.
Method A flying saucer, this craft looks like a triangle when viewed edge-on. It rides on air-breathing engines called blastwave pulsejets.
The Team Leader John Bloomer’s creds-he’s an aerospace engineer who worked on the Apollo missions-have encouraged some critics to take his unusual design seriously.
Backgrounder After lifting off a runway at 60 mph, the 100-ft.-wide Space Tourist would zip upward, exiting the atmosphere at Mach 10. The engines would then cut off, and the craft would coast up to an altitude of 75 miles. The engine would kick in gradually as the craft re-entered the atmosphere, powering it back down to a conventional runway.
Method Winged 35-ft. rocket begins and ends its flight in the sea.
The Team Ex-Johnson Space Center engineer Jim Akkerman leads a team of other NASA retirees.
Backgrounder The Mayflower launches vertically from the ocean, reaching maximum thrust at about the time it clears the water. Fueled by an inexpensive liquid methane/liquid oxygen engine, the Mayflower would ascend to X Prize altitude, then glide down horizontally, landing like a seaplane. The plan calls for a towboat to return the craft to its launch site. The team is considering launching from the Gulf of Mexico.
Method This rocket-powered delta-wing glider would be cable-towed by a Boeing 747 to a 20,000-ft. launch altitude.
The Team One-time U.S. Air Force officer Michael Gallo heads the team, which has helped design and test ICBMs and space launch systems.
Backgrounder After the LB-X is released from the larger plane, its liquid-oxygen-and-kerosene rocket engine will ignite, boosting the craft upward. Once it coasts past a 62.5-mile altitude, LB-X will glide down unpowered to a conventional runway.