Video: Rocketing away

By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 4/14/2008 11:44:44 AM ET 2008-04-14T15:44:44

The Rocket Racing League says its rocket-powered race planes will take off for their first public exhibition races on Aug. 1 and 2 at the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis.

But that's just the start. The league's founders have also acquired an airframe-manufacturing company, taken on a new partner to build rocket engines and set up a string of subsidiaries.

All this is part of an effort to make high-performance aerial racing into a business on a par with high-performance auto racing.

"It's not just about racing rockets around a racetrack in the sky," said Granger Whitelaw, the league's co-founder and chief executive officer. In his view, it's also about building the future of aviation and aerospace.

For two and a half years, Whitelaw and his partners have been working to create a "NASCAR in the sky" — a series of aerial fly-offs that would draw in spectators and viewers the way auto races do today. Now Rocket Racing Inc. is aiming to take that auto-racing parallel several steps further.

Whitelaw outlined the plans during an interview late last week, in advance of Monday's formal announcement in New York:

  • Two breeds of "Rocket Racer" planes would fly in public for the first time on Aug. 1 and 2 at Oshkosh, one of the year's biggest air exhibitions. Current plans call for additional exhibitions at the Reno Air Races in September, at the X Prize Cup in New Mexico (traditionally held in October) and at Aviation Nation in Las Vegas in November.


  • One kerosene-fueled Rocket Racer has been under development at California-based XCOR Aerospace for more than a year. But in a surprise move, the second Rocket Racer would use an alcohol-fueled engine built by Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, under the leadership of millionaire video-game programmer John Carmack.

  • The company that built the airframes for both racing planes, Florida-based Velocity Aircraft, has been acquired by Rocket Racing and will operate under the aegis of a new subsidiary called Rocket Racing Composites Corp. Velocity will build a new line of private planes as well as the airframes for future Rocket Racers.

  • Other subsidiaries have been set up alongside the league to work on avionics and other electronics for the planes (Rocket Racing Technology Development) and to manage the venture's facilities in New Mexico (Rocket Racing Land).

Visions vs. realities
Whitelaw envisions a day when throngs will flock to watch rocket planes zoom through a "racetrack in the sky" at speeds in excess of 300 mph (480 kilometers per hour) and rising as high as a mile above the crowd. Video views of the race, including computer-generated 3-D graphics showing the course, would be flashed onto big screens and available via display devices, so that spectators could follow along even when the planes themselves are hard to spot.

This year's tamer exhibitions will incorporate big-screen views, but the more advanced features won't be ready right away, Whitelaw said.

The planes will be flown by the designated test pilots for the development effort: former astronaut Rick Searfoss for the XCOR Rocket Racer, and former Navy test pilot Len Fox for the Armadillo Rocket Racer. The planes are designed to zoom and glide for about 15 minutes, with the ability to be refueled rapidly between flights.

Six racing teams have signed up for the Rocket Racing League and intend to purchase rocket planes at an estimated cost of $1.2 million. Eventually, the teams plan to vie for millions of dollars in prizes. However, Whitelaw said those competitive races likely wouldn't begin until late 2009.

Between now and then, the league and the other Rocket Racing subsidiaries would have to firm up sponsorships and media deals, ramp up the production line for the planes and gain Federal Aviation Administration approval for the races. Whitelaw indicated that the FAA still had to give its final OK for this year's exhibition flights.

A tale of two engines
Armadillo's involvement could add an extra twist of competition to the preparations for those first flights. In the past, the league has worked exclusively with XCOR Aerospace on engine development and integration. Now XCOR, which recently advanced its plans for a much higher-flying suborbital rocket ship, will be vying with another fledgling rocket company for the league's business.

Last week, XCOR spokesman Doug Graham would say only that his company was continuing to work with the racing league. Over the past six months, the XCOR Rocket Racer has gone through a series of closely guarded test flights at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. "We're making progress, and we're going to get it done," Graham told msnbc.com.

Armadillo's Carmack, meanwhile, said the league approached him confidentially several months ago to work on a parallel engine development project. "I actually said 'no' a couple of times, because we're not airplane guys," Carmack told msnbc.com.

However, Carmack eventually decided that the racing league's needs meshed with his own rocket development effort, which is aimed at building a "Six-Pack" vertical-takeoff craft that can rise up to the frontier of outer space.

This month, the film-cooled engine that would be used in the Armadillo Rocket Racer was fired up to push a heavy crane truck down a pavement. The engine has not yet been tested in an airframe, but Carmack said the plane still could be ready in time for August's exhibition flights. "It's a simple system," he said.

Carmack recently said he would make rocket engines available to customers at a cost of $500,000 apiece. He declined to say exactly how much the racing league was paying Armadillo for the current project - but he said the project had a higher priority than Armadillo's renewed push to win the NASA-funded Lunar Lander Challenge.

"Our deal is to make a bunch of these," he said. "If we wind up making a bunch, it's going to be a pretty good business."

He acknowledged that the venture was "still fairly speculative" but noted that "there's real work being done, and people are going to be racing rockets."

Looking ahead
Actually getting the races off the ground may seem like an ambitious enough goal — but most of the parties involved are looking past the races to bigger ventures. For XCOR as well as for Armadillo, the Rocket Racers are just an intermediate step toward higher-powered suborbital spacecraft.

"Two tanks with a rocket engine is essentially one-sixth of our notional suborbital vehicle," Carmack noted.

Whitelaw, a veteran of the professional auto-racing circuit, expects that the technologies developed by Rocket Racing's subsidiaries will feed into the wider aviation market. He drew an analogy to the way Ferrari applies the lessons learned in its race operations to the consumer automobile market.

"It's using the racing series as a test bed for technology," Whitelaw said. "Just like Formula One, we're going to be doing that for aviation and aerospace."

To that end, he said Velocity Aircraft would bring out a new line of six-seat and four-seat luxury airplanes, incorporating technologies developed for the Rocket Racers. The price tag for the six-seater would be $1 million.

"I truly believe that with the excitement of rocket racing, there are always going to be Velocities there that people can buy," Whitelaw said.

Whitelaw even cast the XCOR-Armadillo engine competition in auto-racing terms. "It gives us more choices for teams," he explained, "just like Honda or Ford or Ferrari."

Whitelaw has repeatedly acknowledged that getting the Rocket Racing League started was taking longer than he originally thought, and he has declined to discuss in detail how much the venture has cost him and his partners so far. But he emphasized that the league's backers were in it for the long haul.

"It's millions of dollars of investment for us, and tens of millions of dollars we're allocating for growing the business over the next few years," he said. "We are committed to do that."

An expanded version of this report appears as a Cosmic Log item.

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