A hovering spacecraft prototype, a zooming rocket plane, demonstrations and blastoffs galore are on the schedule in October for the first-ever X Prize Cup, a follow-up to last year's $10 million suborbital space race.
Don't expect any space-launch competitions this year at Las Cruces' airport: This is strictly an exposition and exhibition, operating under the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules for experimental aircraft.
But there will be liftoffs, takeoffs and rocket flames, during a four-day event aimed at setting the stage for contests to come, said Peter Diamandis, chairman and founder of the X Prize Foundation.
"Our goal is to grow into an event that does bring in tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of people," Diamandis said Friday during a Las Cruces news briefing.
Among the highlights of the Oct. 6-9 event:
- Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace will launch a small-scale version of its vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing spacecraft, built "specifically for this demonstration" and capable of hovering 20 to 30 feet off the ground, said Armadillo's Russell Blink. "We'll be doing a short hover demonstration, and depending on what the vehicle's performance is, if we want to apply for an FAA waiver we can let it fly higher," Blink said.
- XCOR Aerospace will bring its rocket-powered EZ-Rocket plane from Mojave, Calif., for a series of flights piloted by former astronaut Richard Searfoss. "We're hopefully going to be demonstrating some very rapid turnarounds," said XCOR's Doug Jones.
- Starchaser Industries, which recently set up headquarters in New Mexico, will conduct a test firing of the type of rocket engine that could be used on its suborbital test craft as early as next year. "We'll strap it down so it's not going to go anywhere, and then we'll light it up," said Steve Bennett, Starchaser's director. A mockup of Starchaser's crew capsule would also be open for public tours so that attendees can be "a spaceman for a day," Bennett said.
- Oklahoma's Rocketplane Ltd. and Canada's da Vinci Project will show off mockups and real hardware for their spacecraft. Representatives of the two companies said they planned to begin test flights next year and intended to compete in the X Prize Cup races to come.
- Beyond-Earth Enterprises will send up a 17-foot-long amateur-class rocket to an altitude of 20,000 to 24,000 feet, laden with 10 pounds worth of mementos from X Prize Cup attendees, "You buy them, we'll fly them," said Joe Latrell, the company's chief executive officer.
- The Tripoli Rocketry Association plans to send up three rockets to altitudes of 20,000 to 30,000 feet, and San Diego State University plans to conduct a rocket flight as well.
Even though there will be no true spaceflights at this year's X Prize Cup expo, "we're going to be trying to set some new records with these vehicles here," Blink said.
The event's organizers are also planning a variety of educational events: On Oct. 7, more than 1,000 students from the area will converge on the New Mexico Museum for Space History in Alamagordo, N.M., for activities related to rocketry, robotics, astronomy and life sciences, said museum director Mark Santiago. The next day, the museum will present a full schedule of family activities as part of "X Prize Day."
Most of the demonstrations are to take place Oct. 9, although the detailed schedule has not yet been set. Organizers are gathering in Las Cruces this weekend to flesh out their plans.
In coming years, New Mexico plans to develop a Southwest Regional Spaceport near Las Cruces, supported by $9 million in state funds set aside for the project.
Diamandis declined to provide a specific estimate of how much financial benefit the spaceport and the X Prize Cup might bring to the Las Cruces area. However, he said private-sector spaceflight could open new development opportunities for New Mexico, just as steamships benefited St. Louis and railroads benefited Chicago in earlier eras.
Many of the companies participating in the X Prize Cup took part in the $10 million X Prize competition as well — but Mojave-based Scaled Composites, which actually won the prize with its SpaceShipOne rocket plane, was not mentioned as a participant. SpaceShipOne, considered the world's first privately developed spacecraft, has been retired and is due to be installed in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum less than two weeks before the X Prize Cup expo.
Diamandis said this year's New Mexico festival would show that SpaceShipOne's builders weren't the only players in the new suborbital space race. "There are a number of very serious efforts that will be flying in the next six to 18 months," he said.
Today's spaceflight entrepreneurs could "go down in the history books as the Wright brothers or Lindbergh of the 21st century," he said, "and New Mexico is making that possible."