NEW YORK -- Traffic cops beware, there's a whole new league of speed demon in town.
A private group of rocketeers has banded together to create the Rocket Racing League with aims at blurring the line between competitive racing and human spaceflight. Their vision: A fleet of at least 10 stock rocket planes flown by crack pilots through a three-dimensional track 5,000 feet above the Earth.
"This is where innovation begins," said league co-founder Peter Diamandis, who unveiled the new rocket league here today, in an interview. "It's all part of the same...mission, which is to make space personally accessible to the public."
Diamandis, who also founded the $10 million Ansari X Prize suborbital competition for private piloted spacecraft and the Zero Gravity Corp. for weightless flights aboard a modified airplane, envisions a NASCAR-like competition with regional contests leading to a final showdown for prize money.
That final showdown will be held each year in Las Cruces New Mexico, which will host the first X Prize Cup exhibition on Oct. 9 to promote private spaceflight and X Prize contenders. Meanwhile, SpaceShipOne--the winning X Prize entry developed by aerospace veteran Burt Rutan and funded by millionaire Paul Allen--has been donated to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. and will be unveiled on Oct. 5.
"I think this is going to change the face of racing competitions," said rocket league co-founder and president Granger Whitelaw, who has spent 18 years in the auto racing field. "It's like a new [National Football League]."
The Rocket Racing League will feature customizable X-Racer planes based on the EZ-Rocket design developed by Mojave, California's XCOR Aerospace, which will build the first generation of X-Racers. A prototype X-Racer will be demonstrated at the upcoming X Prize Cup, league officials said.
Diamandis said the first rocket races, currently slated for October 2006, are expected to see four X-Racer planes compete alongside one another, with the full 10-plane group to follow in 2007. While the initial set of racers will be built for the league, officials are actively searching for interested sponsors, teams and pilots, he added.
Like the EZ-Rocket, the prototype X-Racer features two, 400-pound thrust rocket engines fueled by liquid oxygen and alcohol. A belly-mounted fuel tank carries just under three minutes' worth of fuel and allows a top speed of about 218 miles an hour (190 knots), said former shuttle astronaut Rick Searfoss, who serves as chief pilot for both XCOR and the Rocket Racing League.
But the first full-up races are expected to see at least four X-Racer planes compete, each equipped with a single 1,800-pound thrust engine fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene.
The liquid oxygen/kerosene fuel mix is expected to have a burn time of about four minutes, which would force pilots to repeatedly shut down their engines and glide, then restart as needed to surpass opponents, explained Searfoss, who will demonstrate the method during the upcoming prototype demonstration.
Onboard heads-up displays are also expected to project each pilot's "flight tunnel" or lane in order to stay on course, league officials added.
Because of their fuel type, X-Racers should also generate a 20-foot flame easily visible from the ground, which will be vital for spectators, Diamandis said.
"Imagine not one, but 10 of these fire-breathing dragons flying around a race course," he added.
Current league plans call for a Grand Prix-type competition in which X-Racers stagger their takeoffs and fly side-by-side in lanes spaced a few hundred feet apart. Cockpit cameras, global positioning systems and even a planned "virtual X-Racer league" - which league officials hope will allow video game fans to race alongside actual flyers during races - are on the drawing board to engage public interest in human spaceflight, league officials said.
"It's got to be participatory," Diamandis said, adding that only by engaging the public - and more importantly young people - can a general interest in human spaceflight be supported. "It's about bringing 21st century racing into people's living rooms."
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