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Wed, Sep 08, 2004

T Minus Four Weeks And Counting Till Da Vinci X-Prize Launch Attempt

The Da Vinci Project Launch Date Is Rapidly Approaching, But Will The Hardware And Paperwork Be Ready In Time?

By ANN Correspondent Christopher Armstrong

Brian Feeney and his volunteer team has been working nonstop to ready their Wild Fire Mk VI X-Prize contender for a scheduled October 2 launch attempt, but they still have several key hardware and administrative issues that need to be completed. On the administrative side, insurance to cover launch liability has yet to be secured and the Canadian Government has not granted permission for the launch from Kindersley, Saskatchewan.

Feeney declined to comment on the level or cost of the insurance that will be secured during an interview with The StarPhoenix, but did say that it will be obtained soon, and that he would not let a couple of little pieces of paper stand in his way. The da Vinci Project has been working with the Canadian Authorities to obtain launch authorization and is prepared to file the insurance and indemnification documents as soon as the insurance is obtained. The Canadian Government is requiring that they be indemnified against launch damages be provided before they will grant their approval.

If these administrative hoops can be completed in time there is still the question of the Wild Fire Mk VI Rockets readiness. Critics of the program have pointed out that few of the many critical systems of the eight thousand pound, twenty five foot long Wild Fire Mk VI Rocket, or the enormous helium balloon that will carry it to the planned seventy to eighty thousand feet launch altitude have been tested. Some of the engine components have been successfully tested, but no full up, end to end systems test have been revealed to have been performed to date. Additional testing is underway, but with only 1 month till Feeney is scheduled to ride this rocket to space, some of Feeney's skeptics worry that the program has become schedule driven with the usual primary driver of safety being moved to a secondary position.

Wild Fire Mk VI has been computer analyzed extensively with computational fluid dynamics and finite element analysis computer aided design tools, which have become extremely capable in recent years. But the aerospace industry typically tests every component in a man rated air or space craft to limit static loads, to fatigue life for dynamic loads and to failure to determine the ultimate capability of each part. Wildfire VI is not extremely complex as space vehicles go, but it does have many critical systems.

The rocket motor is a liquid solid hybrid similar to the one used in Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne. It uses N2O (Nitrous oxide) as its oxidizer, stored in a spherical pressure vessel directly below the crew sphere. It uses Hydroxyl Terminated Poly-Butadiene (HTPB) fuel stored in a graphite rocket case below the oxidizer tank. The system is in the fifteen thousand pound thrust class with a total specific impulse of one million pound-seconds. The support structure for the rocket motor and oxidizer tank is an aluminum space frame which carries all axial loads from the rocket nozzle to the crew capsule. Torsional loads are carried by the external composite aerodynamic fairing.

The crew capsule is a spherical pressure vessel with seats mounted on pneumatic cushioning mechanism to cushion the ride and protect the passengers from harm if the airbag system fails. The entire spacecraft is controlled during ascent and the capsule is stabilized for reentry using Reaction Control System thrusters. The vehicle separates into engine module and crew capsule for separate reentry and recovery. A chemical coating thermal protection system was computationally investigated and the best system selected to project both the capsule and the rocket block from the heating of reentry. Both the crew capsule and the rocket block are designed to by aerodynamically stable so that the will obtain the correct attitude after reentry in the atmosphere without the reaction control system.

The crew capsule uses a parachute to arrest the freefall to 19 feet/second. At this descent rate, airbags will be required to soften the touchdown, or some damage to the crew sphere will occur. The engine module is controlled by the pilot during ascent but uses its own guidance and control system and RCS thrusters after separation for reentry. It is recovered with its own parachute, in a nose down attitude, and also uses an airbag system to soften the landing which will allow reuse.

All these systems are critical to the success of the flight, and more importantly, to Feeney's safety. But Feeney said in an interview just after announcing his launch date "We don't have anything to defend or to prove to anyone. People are, pardon the expression, pissing in the wind." According to Feeny the da Vinci program has developed "a new paradigm" that makes it easier, quicker and cheaper to build new manned spacecraft, and reduces the need for some of the testing that has been done in the past.

Suborbital launches are governed by national aviation agencies. Burt Rutan's systematically tested SpaceShipOne program received a launch license from the United States Federal Aviation Administration. Wild Fire MK VI will have to receive its approval from Transport Canada's Launch Safety Office. Feeney must convince these authorities that the extensive computer modeling and limited testing is sufficient to provide for a safe launch, and obtain insurance for the launch at an affordable rate before his attempt. If he gets his approval, and launches on schedule, then Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a space race!

FMI: http://www.davinciproject.com/beta/index.html, http://www.xprize.org/

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