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Rocket racers target space

Rocket Racing Inc. and Armadillo Aerospace are taking their rocket-powered partnership to the next level, in a suborbital space tourism venture to be headquartered at New Mexico's Spaceport America.

Flight testing is due to begin next year, with passenger service scheduled to start in 2010. The promised cost of a ticket: $100,000 or less.

"The price of space is coming down to earth," Rocket Racing's co-founder and chief executive officer, Granger Whitelaw, declared.

Today's announcement came on the same day that Texas-based Armadillo won $350,000 of NASA's money in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, taking place at Las Cruces International Airport in New Mexico. Led by millionaire John Carmack, the Armadillo Aerospace team flew its rocket-powered lander prototype through a course that simulates a space mission.

Carmack started up Armadillo Aerospace eight years ago, using part of the fortune he earned as a virtuoso programmer for "Doom" and other video games.at id Software. For years, he and his mostly-volunteer rocketeers have been working to perfect a vertical-launch rocket system - first for the Ansari X Prize, and then for the Lunar Lander Challenge.

Armadillo has also done contract work for the Air Force, and will finish up a methane rocket project for NASA. But going forward, Carmack and his team plan to turn the focus exclusively to their ventures with Rocket Racing. "We're basically not doing any more business development," Carmack said.

For the past eight months, Armadillo has been building and testing the engine for the racing planes to be used by the Rocket Racing League. The Armadillo-powered racer got the Federal Aviation Administration's go-ahead for exhibition flights just this month - and Carmack expects to provide a fleet of rocket planes for the league over the next year.

The suborbital space venture ties Armadillo and Rocket Racing even more closely together.

Rocket Racing's Whitelaw emphasized that the consortium is a work in progress. "We're not 'done,'" he told me. "There are a lot of possibilities that we're looking at."

Rocket Racing League
This illustration shows the current concept
for Armadillo's suborbital spaceship. Click
on the image for a larger version.

The main pieces are in place, however: Armadillo is to develop a reusable, vertical-takeoff rocket ship capable of rising beyond an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) - the internationally accepted boundary of outer space. The two-person-capacity vehicle would be powered by Armadillo's modular rocket engines. Carmack said an eight-engine configuration should provide ample redundancy for safe manned flight.

Whitelaw said the ship would have a see-through passenger capsule, allowing for a "360-degree view of space." At the peak of the ascent, passengers would see the black sky of space above a curving Earth, and experience a thrilling taste of weightlessness.

Carmack said that the first unmanned flight tests would be flown next year from the Oklahoma Spaceport, with the prototype craft descending beneath parachutes. By the time passenger flights begin, sometime in 2010, he expected Armadillo to switch to a controlled, rocket-powered descent with a parachute backup system. By that time, the locale would switch as well, to New Mexico's Spaceport America, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Las Cruces.

Rocket Racing Technology Development, a subsidiary of Rocket Racing Inc., would be responsible for financing and business management. The state of New Mexico would provide the launch facility infrastructure. Whitelaw said New Mexico would provide Rocket Racing with $3 million for infrastructure development.

"I am honored that Rocket Racing Inc. and Armadillo Aerospace have chosen New Mexico to set up shop," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said in a statement released by Rocket Racing. "Spaceport America and the state of New Mexico are proud partners, and together we are writing the next chapter of space transportation."

A fourth partner in the venture will be responsible for marketing the space rides, taking reservations, training passengers and managing the customer experience, Whitelaw said. He said the partner is an "industry leader" in tourism, but added that he would not identify the company until the marketing plan was ready to be revealed.

"We already have passengers," Whitelaw told me, "but I'm not going to tell you anything more."

The target price of $100,000 is about half of what Virgin Galactic is charging for future suborbital space excursions beyond the 62-mile mark. It's comparable to the suggested price for a 38-mile-high ride in XCOR Aerospace's yet-to-be-built Lynx Mark 1 rocket plane. Those ventures are expected to start taking passengers no earlier than 2010, and more likely later.

"I've been saying for some time that we'll end up doing this before Virgin does," Carmack said. "We'll certainly be able to undercut their price."

In today's announcement, Rocket Racing said the suborbital spaceships could be used for more than space tourism. "Target missions include microgravity experiments, astrophysics observations, reconnaissance and high-altitude scientific and meteorological measurements," the company said.

Carmack said he thought the venture should be able to get the required permits and licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration in time to meet the 2009-2010 development schedule. "We've been through this process," he said. But his years of chasing after the X Prize and the Lunar Lander Challenge have also taught him not to take anything for granted - especially when it comes to rockets.

"The best-laid plans and intentions don't always end up coming out like that," he said.

This item was last updated at 1 a.m. ET Oct. 25. To keep track of developments at the Lunar Lander Challenge, check out these blogs: