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Rocket racers take it slower

Mike D'Angelo / Rocket Racing League ®
Click for video: Watch the Armadillo-powered
rocket plane take off for a test flight in Oklahoma.

The economic downturn has forced the Rocket Racing League and other ventures to scale back their suborbital ambitions - but the league's leader says his plans for a "NASCAR with rockets" are still moving ahead, more than three years after they were unveiled.

That's often the way it goes in the space business: High-flying timetables not only run into fund-raising realities, but also encounter technical setbacks great and small.

The classic example is the tragic nitrous-oxide tank accident in 2007 that killed three of Scaled Composites' engineers and dealt a heavy blow to Virgin Galactic's suborbital space development effort.

You could also point to Rocketplane Kistler's bid to create a low-cost launch system for resupplying the international space station, which fizzled due to financial difficulties (but "is not dead," according to Rocketplane's Chuck Lauer).

Last fall, the Rocket Racing League and Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace announced ambitious plans to get a new vertical-launch suborbital spaceship off the ground - the kind of craft that could give passengers a jolt of acceleration, a few minutes of weightlessness and an unparalleled view of the earth below.

But last weekend, at the Space Access '09 conference in Phoenix, Armadillo founder John Carmack said those plans "did not come to fruition." The Rocket Racing League's president and chief executive officer, Granger Whitelaw, confirmed today that the suborbital project has been "put on hold, because we need to focus on the core business."

That core business involves organizing a series of NASCAR-like competitions that would put rocket planes through a "racetrack in the sky" while spectators watch the show on big screens below. Armadillo has been working with the league to beef up a fleet of Velocity XL-5 airframes with alcohol-fueled, flame-spouting rocket engines.

Shortcomings that cropped up in the initial rounds of flight tests have resulted in a series of design tweaks over the winter, Whitelaw said: For example, the airframe has been lengthened and the pilot's seat has been moved forward to balance out the center of gravity, and a canopy has taken the place of the gullwing doors.

The economy has put a crimp in Whitelaw's plans, for the rocket racers as well as for the suborbital craft. "We've slowed things down a little bit," he acknowledged. "The economy's really affecting everybody in a pretty dramatic way."

It's affecting the state of New Mexico, for example. The state government had intended to kick in some funding for a Rocket Racing League research and development park in Las Cruces, but the appropriation was tied up in the state Legislature. As a result, the league had to pass on an option to purchase land for the park last month. "We're just waiting," Whitelaw said.

Last year, the league demonstrated its first-generation racer, equipped with engines from California-based XCOR Aerospace, at the AirVenture show in Oshkosh. This year's time line calls for two Armadillo-powered planes to fly at September's Reno Air Races. "We're going to put on a pretty good show there," Whitelaw said.

Additional demonstration flights may take place after that, but full-blown rocket races with prizes may have to wait until 2011, Whitelaw said. "It's really a matter of waiting for the economy to sort itself out," he said.

Whitelaw said he's continuing to work on a deal for a reality TV show based on the lives of the rocket-plane fliers, with an hour-long episode targeted for airing this fall as an initial step. Will all this come together as Whitelaw hopes? Stay tuned.

XCOR staying on track
In the meantime, XCOR Aerospace is plugging along on its plans to get its Lynx Mark 1 rocket plane into the test-flight phase by next year. XCOR's CEO, Jeff Greason, told me that the engineering test vehicle was under construction and the rocket engines are undergoing testing.

Greason acknowledged that raising money for rocket ventures was tough in the current economic environment. But then again, he added, "I haven't ever noticed when it was easy."

Although Greason has never announced that there's enough money in the bank to get the Lynx off the ground, XCOR just keeps going, and going, and going. That's thanks in large part to its stealthy ability to leverage the know-how gained through a variety of contracts - including its now-done deal with the Rocket Racing League.

Greason tends to keep an even keel - not getting too excited during the up times, or too depressed during the down times. Maybe that's because the former Intel executive has seen so many of those ups and downs, particularly since he switched to the rocket business. "It's been 10 years," he told me. "Maybe my adrenal glands are burned out."

More from Space Access '09
I could spend only one evening at the Space Access conference this year, due to the fact that I was also covering the Origins Symposium up the road. Fortunately, a lot of rocket bloggers have been providing the full story about the rocket revolution, and Clark Lindsey links to most of them from RLV and Space Transport News.

One of the newsier bits percolating out of the conference was the revised plan for the Lunar Lander Challenge, which will be run as a series of rocket-powered fly-offs held at the home facilities of the various rocket teams involved in the $1.65 million competition. The competition season could open as early as June. Stay tuned for the official details.

Among other highlights from the last week's postings: