One Final, Cheap Shot at Space
by Dan Brekke
2:00 a.m. Oct. 28, 2000 PDT
The field of contenders for the Cheap Access to Space Prize, which
just a month ago included a half-dozen teams hoping to launch by the
Nov. 8 deadline, has been winnowed to one.
The $250,000 cash prize was offered three years ago to the first group
to launch a 2-kilogram payload to an altitude of 200
kilometers. Although many at first regarded the challenge as a
no-sweat proposition, not one of the 50 or so teams that entered has
made a prize attempt.
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Cheap Space: The Final Frontier
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Rocket Men From Way Back
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The last team standing with two weeks to go before the deadline is the
High-Altitude Research Corporation, based in Huntsville, Alabama,
which plans to launch early Sunday from a utility boat in the Gulf of
Mexico 200 miles west of Tampa, Florida.
HARC will try to get to space using a rockoon system.
Its launching platform will be carried to an altitude of 70,000 feet,
at which point the rocket will be fired. By launching from above the
thickest part of the atmosphere, the team can use a lighter, less
powerful motor than if it launched from the ground.
Greg Allison, an aerospace engineer who works as a contractor on the
International Space Station when he's not leading HARC, said it's not
surprising that so many of the CATS teams have come to grief.
"You've heard the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest
link," he said. "Well, a rocket project has a whole lot of links."
Participants in the contest -- designed to foster creation of new
launch companies and the development of ultra-cheap launch vehicles --
have been undone by problems with federal flight regulators and by the
basic difficulty of building a vehicle capable of going high enough
and fast enough to leave the atmosphere.
J.P. Aerospace of Rancho Cordova, California, was derailed when the
Federal Aviation Administration's commercial space-transportation
office decided it needed more time to process the company's launch
application. JPA had applied in May for a waiver to launch from
Northern Nevada's Black Rock Desert on Oct. 7.
SORAC, a Hollister, California group, also ran into trouble with the
FAA and Bureau of Land Management officials who oversee the Black Rock
Desert. Interorbital Systems of Southern California, which planned a
Halloween launch from the Pacific 175 miles west of Vandenberg Air
Force Base, earlier this month became the only CATS team to receive a
full-on commercial launch license. But the company is no longer aiming
for a definite date.
"We were in this before the CATS Prize was announced" in 1997,
Interorbital's Randa Milliron said. "We may be outside the launch
window, but we'll launch whenever we're ready."
The Danish Space Challenge, a group of amateurs from Copenhagen,
scheduled an attempt for Nov. 1 from the southeastern Greenland town
of Kangerlussuaq. Its shot was scrubbed last week because the team had
fallen hopelessly behind in its construction effort.
"We were ready in mind, but not in metal," team leader Jeppe Locht
Interorbital's Milliron, among others, has expressed hope that the
CATS organizers will extend the contest deadline or renew the prize
She says history -- Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, for
which he won a $25,000 prize put up eight years earlier by a New York
hotelier -- offers a precedent.
"The deadline is artificial. The prize that Lindbergh won when he
crossed the Atlantic -- no one set a deadline on that," she
said. Extending the contest would be "the gentlemanly thing to do,"
The CATS Prize jackpot came from Walt Anderson, the telecom
billionaire who has led the effort to keep Russia's Mir space station
in orbit for tourism and other private enterprise.
David Anderman, the CATS Prize administrator, has insisted that
neither the deadline nor the duration of the contest will change.
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