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Rocket racers rise again

Mike Howard for RRL
The Rocket Racing League's Mark III rocket-powered plane fires up during a test

flight in Oklahoma. Fins have been added to the fuselage for stability's sake.

After shifting its business plan, the Rocket Racing League is revving up again for a gee-whiz demonstration of its X-Racer planes next week in Oklahoma. The new-look racing planes will feature crowd-pleasers such as rocket fins and colored flames - as well as an innovative system that will display a virtual "raceway in the sky" on the pilot's helmet visor.

The demonstration flights are to take place on April 24 at the QuikTrip Air and Rocket Racing Show in Tulsa, Okla. The event marks the first outing for the "X-Racers" in front of a paying audience since a series of flights in 2008 at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis.

Since then, the design of the X-Racer has been modified several times, and the rocket engines have been upgraded accordingly. The five-year-old Rocket Racing League has gone through its own ups and downs: League officials had to let their lease options on property for a New Mexico headquarters lapse, and they also put aside ambitious plans to develop suborbital spaceships as well as rocket-powered racing planes.

After securing more than $5 million in additional financing last year, the league resumed its campaign to create a "NASCAR with rockets" experience - with rocket pilots flying through a computer-defined course while spectators watch.

"We are building an interactive 21st-century entertainment company that combines the exhilaration of racing and the power of rockets, and the available 21st-century technology to make this a personal interactive experience," Peter Diamandis, the league's co-founder and chairman of the board, told journalists today.

Eventually, rocket fans will be able to watch contests involving up to six X-Racers from the grandstand, via TV coverage, or on their iPhone or iPad. But next week, the audience will see just two of the racing planes - dubbed the Mark II and the Mark III - show their stuff at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, on the north side of Tulsa International Airport.

Over the months to come, the X-Racers will make their appearance at air shows yet to be named, Diamandis said. The formats for the aerial demonstrations may vary from event to event as the league assesses which configuration makes the most sense in terms of safety and watchability. For example, is it better to have serial single-plane flights or head-to-head simultaneous flights?

The current game plan calls for honest-to-goodness competitions to begin in late 2011, Diamandis said.

Test pilot Dave Morss said flying the X-Racer requires frequent switching between the rocket-powered mode and glider mode. The ethanol-fueled rocket engine can get the plane going at up to 300 mph (483 kilometers per hour). "I throw the switch, and I go from sedately, quietly gliding along to insanely thrusting up into the sky instantly," said Morss, who doesn't go sparingly on adverbs.

Each pilot will have to figure out how to maximize the performance of the ethanol-fueled rocket engine, he said: "It's a major chess game that is continually clicking through his head, always trying to be two moves ahead," Morss told journalists.

The Mark III X-Racer features a set of upgrades, including fins that improve the plane's stability and a redesigned single-person cockpit that provides more visibility. The film-cooled engine, built by Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, allows for the addition of colorants that can turn what would normally be a nearly invisible rocket exhaust into red or orange flames.

The most significant change, however, is almost literally inside the pilot's helmet.

Working in cooperation with Elbit Systems, the league is pioneering an augmented-reality display system that will show pilots as well as spectators where the aerial racetrack lies. For spectators, the course will be projected on giant screens or remote displays. For pilots, the course will be projected onto the helmet visor, said Michael D'Angelo, the league's chief operating officer.

The visor display, which has previously been available only to military pilots, is designed to adjust the view with every movement of the race pilot's head. "We have completed our initial flight tests with excellent results," D'Angelo said. "It's a very major development for the Rocket Racing League."

Will rocket racing win the kind of audiences associated with NASCAR, or will it fizzle as a spectator sport? We'll have to wait for the reviews - not only from Tulsa, but also from the other air shows where the X-Racers will be rising again.

Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. You can also check out my book, "The Case for Pluto." The next event on the book-tour schedule is my talk at the National Academy of Sciences' Marian Koshland Science Museum in Washington at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday.