With a successful balloon test under their belt and launch paperwork almost in the bag, some eager Canadian rocketeers are confident they will launch their privately built, human-carrying spaceship in time to compete in an international space race.
Team members with the GoldenPalace.com Space Program Powered by the da Vinci Project said their group is on track for an anticipated Oct. 2 launch, one of two required under the rules of the international Ansari X Prize spaceflight competition.
"We are making excellent progress," said Toronto-based team leader Brian Feeney in an e-mail interview. "The schedule has always been tight but we continue to plough our way through."
The GoldenPalace.com/da Vinci Project team is one of more than two dozen groups competing for the X Prize. The contest calls for entrants to successfully build and fly a reusable three-person spacecraft up to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) - the edge of space - and back. They must then repeat the flight within 14 days. The first team to do so by the end of 2004 wins a trophy and $10 million.
The da Vinci Project's primary competitor, aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his Mojave, California firm Scaled Composites, has already test flown their SpaceShipOne vehicle and will make its first X Prize flight on Sept. 29.
"The race is on," Feeney said, who will pilot his team's spacecraft Wild Fire Mark VI.
Feeney and his team hit a major milestone with the Sept. 12 test of a scale model of their balloon launch system.
Under the current flight profile, Feeney's team will use a large helium balloon to hoist the 8,500-pound (3,855 kilogram) spacecraft into launch position about 80,000 feet (24,384 meters) above the Canadian town of Kindersley, Saskatchewan. The spacecraft then detaches from its mother balloon and ignites a hybrid rocket engine to reach space.
"[These] balloons are made of a very thin material and you've got to be careful that you're cautious in handling it," said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA's chief technologist for the scientific balloon program office at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. "And the wind conditions must be just right so that they don't cause damage to the balloon."
In their recent test, da Vinci Project team members launched a scale version of their launch balloon from a Colorado staging ground after filling it with more helium than needed to test stresses on the balloon envelope.
"As in any test, it was a significant one and was a success," Feeney said. "The balloon is a major subsystem."
However, the balloon tested in Colorado was slightly different than the one to be used for Wild Fire's maiden voyage. The test balloon only flew to a peak of 40,000 feet (12,192 meters), half that of the final flight profile, and was made of much thinner material - 0.75 millimeters thick as opposed to the final balloon thickness of more than 4 millimeters.
But Feeney said the balloon test addressed "specific questions" da Vinci Project team members hoped to answer and built confidence in the team's launch process.
Pinning down insurance
In addition to the technical hurdles involved in building a manned spaceship, another obstacle to Wild Fire's approaching launch attempt was providing proof of insurance to the Canadian government's Launch Safety Office.
"The insurance for the flight has now been put into place," Feeney said. "It is done...the final process is proceeding for the Oct. 2 launch schedule."
Lucie Vignola, a spokeswoman with Transport Canada's Launch Safety Office overseeing the da Vinci Project flight paperwork, said her agency would process the material swiftly once it was submitted.
"The [launch] application has already been in for awhile, and we've had the time to make sure everything is safe," Vignola said during a telephone interview. "The last piece that's been missing is the proof of insurance."
Safe flying above Canada
Safety has been a chief concern for both Feeney's team and for ground crews at the Kindersley Airport, where Wild Fire and its balloon will stage their launch.
Critics of Feeney and the da Vinci Project have attacked the team's launch plans and its lack of steady flight testing program akin to the stepping stone progress of SpaceShipOne, which conducted a series of glide and powered flight tests before its first space shot on June 21.
Last month, University of Saskatchewan engineering professor Ted Llewellyn told the Canadian newspaper Star Phoenix that the cities of Saskatoon and Kindersley would be in "bombing range" of Wild Fire should Feeney lose control of the spacecraft during its rocket burn.
"Most of it came from a few people who did not know the specifics of our rocket's system, mission execution plan, etc.," Feeney said of the criticism.
Wild Fire has both a computerized and manual flight system, as well as a hybrid rocket engine that can be shutdown at anytime if an abort is needed, he added. The vehicle is also designed maintain stability and self-right itself.
"I feel very safe going up in it," Feeney said when he debuted the spacecraft on Aug. 5.
Kindersley Airport engineer and manager Dan Gunnlaugson said his facility is working closely with da Vinci team members to safeguard the site, the town and its occupants against any danger from the October launch.
"We've got a location three-quarters of a mile away for viewing and spectators," he told SPACE.com. "We're designating [the da Vinci team] a fairly good-sized area, and nobody else is going to get anywhere close."
Meanwhile, the town's fire department is treating the launch attempt as it would any hazardous material operation.
"We're familiar with all the fuels Feeney's using and we're dividing up into crews," said Kindersley Fire Chief Ron Hope, adding that 16 firefighters will circle the Wild Fire launch site with more on alert at the fire hall. "I just hope that they're successful in achieving their mission."