A spaceship built on a shoestring budget went up — and down — in flames during its maiden flight on Sunday. But no one got hurt, and the young rocket engineers behind the Rubicon 1 rocket said they were staying in the private-sector space race despite the setback.
After months of smaller-scale tests and computer modeling, Space Transport Corp. launched the Rubicon for the first time from a privately owned plot of forest just south of Olympic National Park, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The company was founded two years ago by engineers Phillip Storm and Eric Meier, both 26, to go after the $10 million Ansari X Prize for suborbital space travel.
With Sunday's failure, the X Prize now seems out of reach — but Space Transport's partners are still hoping to cash in on a future wave of space tourism.
The two co-founders had hoped that the 23-foot-long (7-meter-long), 38-inch-diameter (97-centimeter-diameter) Rubicon 1 rocket would go as high as 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) and go as fast as 1.5 times the speed of sound during Sunday's initial test flight.
For this test, the rocket was unmanned. Instead, a crash-test dummy, made from a barbershop mannequin and foam packing peanuts, was placed in the pilot's seat. That turned out to be fortunate for everyone except the dummy.
When the countdown reached zero and the two rocket engines were ignited by remote control, one of the engines blew itself apart, immediately knocking the Rubicon off kilter.
The other engine blasted the rocket several hundred feet into the air before the assembly broke into pieces. Then that engine twirled down to the ocean like a falling, flaming baton — finally extinguishing itself in the Pacific.
A 52-foot (16-meter) fishing boat that had been waiting offshore with Meier aboard to retrieve the rocket went back to shore empty-handed. Minutes after the explosion, the head of the crash-test dummy washed up on shore, along with engine casings and pieces of the rocket body.
Back at the launch site, Storm said the malfunction appeared to have been caused by a manufacturing flaw in the errant engine. Even before blastoff, he could feel a "bubble," or imperfection, in the shape of the solid propellant packed within the engine tube. Both of the engines were manufactured at Space Transport's shop in Forks, Wash., up the road from Queets.
"I had identified this problem before the launch," he said. "We were somewhat sure that it was going to work well, but it turns out that we need to isolate that problem and fix it."
The Rubicon 1 cost an estimated $20,000 to build, and Storm pledged to have another Rubicon ready for launch in the next month or so. He said the engine problem might have been corrected before launch if Space Transport had the money for more thorough testing. Indeed, the lack of funding was a common refrain.
"We're definitely the underdogs," Storm said. "We're underfunded, we're understaffed. But we have what it takes, I think, to get the job done. We just need funding."
The partners have raised about $220,000 over the past year — from their own families as well as from investments and donations provided by residents of the engineers' adopted home, Washington state's forest-clad Olympic Peninsula. The volunteers and other locals who watched Sunday's wayward launch, from half a mile away, voiced sympathy for Storm and Meier.
"They worked so hard," said Debbie Anderson, who along with her husband owns a piece of the oceanside property.
Chasing the prize
Storm, Meier and their team of volunteers have been working on their Ansari X Prize bid for the past year, along with other rocket projects.
The prize would go to the first team to launch a privately financed, reusable craft that reaches an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles) twice within two weeks, while carrying a pilot and weight equivalent to two other people. The 100-kilometer height is internationally recognized as the boundary of outer space.
The first private piloted spaceflight took place on June 21, when SpaceShipOne, a craft funded by software billionaire Paul Allen and designed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, reached the required altitude on a test flight. That flight didn't qualify for the X Prize because the craft didn't carry enough extra weight.
The SpaceShipOne team plans to make its first X Prize qualifying flight on Sept. 29, and the Canadian da Vinci Project plans its own qualifying flight on Oct. 2. The $10 million could conceivably be won by mid-October.
Meanwhile, it's back to the drawing board for Space Transport: Even if the team members eventually succeed with the two-engine test, they would have to work up to the full complement of seven engines to reach 100 kilometers. They would also have to select and train a pilot candidate; Storm said several people have volunteered for the job.
"The dummy may not want to fly again," he joked, "but we're going to try again, and we can make it work."
The $10 million purse expires at the end of this year, but Storm said he and Meier intended to keep working on the Rubicon and its successors even if they're no longer in the running for the X Prize. He predicted that vehicles worthy of space tourists would be available in two to five years.
"The major goal is space tourism," he said. "That's where the money is. It's not just the $10 million. If you look at the numbers for space tourism, the $10 million is minuscule in comparison."