Fly me to the moon

Fly me to the moon

As the race to launch mere mortals into orbit heats up, two Canadians are competing for their share of a huge tourism market-in outer space
May 2, 2005
In October 2004, aviation legend Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne beat out 23 competitors to capture the $10-million Ansari X Prize for the first private, manned suborbital space flights.

At that point, many observers assumed the race was over. But it was just beginning.

Rutan’s successful demonstration marked the beginning of the race for the real prize: a multi-million dollar market for commercial space tourism. And for two ambitious and ingenious Canadian entries—Golden Space Program (the da Vinci Project) and Canadian Arrow—it was a unique opportunity to get in on the outer-space action. “We’re into the marketplace now—that’s what the X Prize was all about,” says Canadian Arrow leader Geoffrey Sheerin. “The X Prize was won, but today, you still can’t personally buy a ticket and fly into space. We want to change that.”

The Ansari X Prize was first introduced in May 1996 by the X Prize Foundation, a non profit organization that promotes the formation of space tourism. The $10 million prize was modeled on the $25,000 Orteig Prize in 1927, which is credited for being the catalyst for commercial aviation. That prize was won when Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis, emerged from a group of nine competitors to fly non-stop between New York and Paris.

The X Prize has become a similar modern-day catalyst. The moment Rutan’s SpaceShipOne captured the prize, billionaire adventurer Sir Richard Branson—no stranger to aviation with his Virgin Atlantic Airlines—hired Rutan to build a fleet of spaceships for his new Virgin Galactic corporation to fly tourists into sub-orbital space. Now Sheerin and’s Brian Feeney are determined to beat Branson to the punch.

“When we complete our flights at the end of the year, we’ll be moving aggressively because we’re almost a year behind Richard Branson. But we hope to be there first with a more innovative concept that’s at least as competitive,” says Feeney. “We’re going to space—we’re not just playing on a world stage, we’re playing on a universal stage.”

Feeney says the da Vinci Project is still going to fly under the auspices of the X Prize, with the team’s Wildfire spacecraft taken aloft by a balloon where large thrusters will propel the ship into space. “We’re conducting the two manned flights within a two-week period,” he says. “We’ll see if we can break the turnaround record, and we’ll try to break the altitude record.”

Feeney says his team’s rocket is 80 percent complete and he intends to conduct an unmanned test flight this summer, with manned flights as early as possible within 30 to 45 days following that.

In January, Feeney unveiled his second-generation rocket to the Canadian Student Summit on Aerospace at the University of Toronto. It’s this rocket—code-named Project Tiger—that he intends to use to compete against Virgin Galactic and others. Instead of being carried aloft on a balloon, the eight-seat winged rocket will take off and land on airplane runways. “We’re looking to build the prototype in 2006, with an eye to flying it in mid-2007,” says Feeney.

The flight date for Canadian Arrow is being kept a competitive secret, but Sheerin says he has no doubt it will fly—especially since it’s an updated version of the tried and true, 60-year-old Nazi-era V-2 rocket. “We’re the only guys in the X Prize race who can actually claim that most of our technology has flown before—about 3,000 flights,” says Sheerin. “But this time around, the flights will be for good, not evil.”

Today, Canadian Arrow’s competition days are over with. Instead, the corporation is 100-percent focused on the business of carrying paying customers into space. “The strategy is to become a space corporation that generates a profit,” says Sheerin. “We’re hell-bent on making that happen.”

Sheerin sees a lengthy future for sub-orbital flight, eventually becoming a component of general aviation. In addition to tourism flights, he believes businesses like his will be the ideal place for new astronauts to earn their wings nationally, before going on to orbital space missions and beyond.

Both Canadian Arrow and da Vinci are in the hunt for enough financial support to complete their first missions. Canadian Arrow needs about $5 to $6 million. And da Vinci needs another $800,000 to $1 million. They hope to find that money from Canadian investors—either in government or the private sector.

Armed with the right financial support, there’s no telling what this ingenious pair can achieve. In fact, as they gaze out into the heavens and ponder the future, more than ever Sheerin and Feeney are sure of one thing: the sky’s the limit.

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