WASHINGTON — Organizers of a competition to achieve the first privately funded manned spaceflight say 27 teams have entered and they expect to award the $10 million prize by the end of the year.
Many of the teams vying for the “X Prize” already have conducted test launches, with one of the two U.S. teams propelling a suborbital spacecraft to 68,000 feet, or about 13 miles.
The contest calls for launching a manned craft to 62.5 miles above the Earth, which is generally considered the edge of space, twice within two weeks. The craft must be able to carry three people.
Members of the X Prize Foundation said they think that by 2006 there will be enough of a market to have teams race to space and back to win a proposed X Prize Cup.
“We’re ready to go,” said Diane Murphy, spokeswoman for the X Prize.
The X Foundation, a St. Louis-based group created to promote the development of private, reusable launch vehicles, is supported by donors including Dennis Tito, an American who spent $20 million to fly in a Russian craft as the first space tourist, and Erik Lindbergh, a pilot and grandson of Charles Lindbergh.
The group’s mission is to build what they believe is a $20 billion market for private citizens to travel to space. They liken the prize to those offered early in the 20th century that helped propel the aviation industry.
“The goal is simple: to establish a new generation of aircraft that will take you and me to space,” Murphy said.
They believe many people will want to pay thousands of dollars to take a 15-minute trip to the edge of space, during which there will be moments of weightlessness.
“There are opportunities for the U.S. to retake its role in the space world,” said Patricia Grace Smith, associate administrator for the FAA’s division of commercial space transportation. “But safety is foremost.”
The FAA plans a two-day Commercial Space Transportation Conference on Tuesday and Wednesday. Officials from the Departments of Defense and Transportation as well as congressional representatives will discuss ways to facilitate privately launched space flights by the end of the year.
The two U.S. teams competing for the X Prize are Scaled Composites, which has been conducting tests over a Mojave Desert airport in California, and Armadillo Aerospace of Dallas.
Officials said a leading contender so far is Scaled Composites’ craft, which reached 68,000 feet in its 11th trial. The team is led by aviation maverick Burt Rutan, who is best known for designing the Voyager airplane that made the first nonstop, unrefueled flight around the world in 1986.
The Scaled Composite entry consists of a rocket plane, dubbed SpaceShipOne , and the White Knight, an exotic jet designed to carry it aloft for a high-altitude air launch. SpaceShipOne, made of graphite and epoxy, has short wings and twin vertical tails.
Other countries with teams competing for the X Prize include the United Kingdom, Romania, Israel, Argentina and Canada.
The X Prize competition comes at a time of renewed attention to space. Last month, President Bush called for a mission to return Americans to the moon as early as 2015 and to travel to Mars sometime afterward.