Canadian X Prize Team Delays Launch Attempt
Brian Feeney, leader of the da Vinci Project and first pilot of the Wild Fire Mark VI spacecraft, inspects the vehicle with his space suit helmet in hand. The vehicle is parked in the da Vinci Project's Downsview Airport hangar in Toronto, Canada.
Credit: T. Malik/SPACE.com.

This is story was updated at 4:45 p.m. EDT.

The countdown for a Canadian rocket with its eyes on the international Ansari X Prize is on hold while project engineers secure and test key components for their piloted spacecraft.

Just over a week before a scheduled Oct. 2 launch, the Toronto-based da Vinci Project announced a delay in their plans to fly Wild Fire Mark VI, a privately built spacecraft piloted by team leader Brian Feeney, from the town of Kindersley, Saskatchewan.

"We're not days behind, but we're not months behind," Feeney said in a telephone interview. "The entire rocket is sitting here, the aeroshells are done...it's coming together."

Feeney said the delay was prompted to allow more time to work with a pressure vessel for the Wild Fire spacecraft, as well a few other minor components. Under X Prize rules, an announced technical delay for a short period of time - like an uncontrollable hold due to weather - is not a showstopper for contenders, he added.

In a Sept. 23 press statement, da Vinci Project officials said they will release an amended launch date "as soon as practicable under the auspices of the Ansari X Prize, notwithstanding the flight plans of any other competitor."

Feeney said his team will begin mobilizing prelaunch teams several days after the initially targeted launch weekend. The Wild Fire Mark VI rocket and the rest of the project team are expected to follow shortly after.

"We will publicize a new flight date after we have arrived in Kindersley," Feeney said.

The da Vinci Project, officially called the Golden Palace.com Space Program powered by the da Vinci Project, is one of more than two dozen teams vying for the Ansari X Prize. It is an international competition for privately funded teams to build and launch a reusable, three-person spacecraft to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers). The first team to complete such a flight twice within two weeks by the end of 2004 snags $10 million.

According to its flight plan, Wild Fire Mark VI will be hoisted into launch position by a helium balloon, which will carry the spacecraft and pilot to an altitude of 80,000 feet (24,384 meters). There the spacecraft is cut loose, ignites its engine and rockets spaceward. The countdown clock for the launch attempt is currently holding at 7 days according to the team's website.

Feeney's planned Oct. 2 space shot was scheduled just days after the Sept. 29 flight of SpaceShipOne, developed by X Prize competitor Burt Rutan and his firm Scaled Composites. SpaceShipOne has already flown to the suborbital altitude -- the only craft ever to do so with a civilian pilot -- but the Sept. 29 launch will be the first of two planned flights aimed at snagging the X Prize.

Kindersley officials said they spoke with da Vinci team members and held an emergency meeting on Sept. 23. During that meeting, they said, local officials received word that the Oct. 2 launch attempt was going to be pushed back.

Da Vinci officials said they felt safety was key, said Dan Gunnlaugson, Kindersley Airport manager and engineer.

"We're still a go for launch," Feeney said in a statement announcing the delay. "We've made milestone progress since the early August arrival of our title sponsor, Golden Palace.com and we intend to prove that Canadians can and will put a man into space."

In the statement, Feeney also said his team has secured flight insurance for both X Prize launches.

During a Sept. 16 e-mail interview, Feeney told SPACE.com that the team was making progress in preparing Wild Fire for launch and integrating its components into a final spacecraft. The team, he said then, had celebrated the successful test of a scale version of its launch balloon.

"It's not over until it's over," Feeney said today. "We're still competing."