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« Too Compassionate | Main | I'll Finally Come Into Style »

X-Prize Progress

Leonard David has a good roundup of X-Prize progress.

Last month, the X Prize rocketship race garnered the support and participation of the Champ Car World Series -- an organization steeped in checker flag competitions of open-wheel speedsters around the globe. The seven-figure sponsorship includes having the Champ Car World Series logo placed on all X Prize vehicles. The series will also be the primary corporate sponsor of the X Prize flights...

..."I find it interesting that everyone says the X Prize expires at the end of the year when in actual fact the ‘trophy’ is available until whenever it is won. And just like the Americas Cup, the trophy has very significant value…perhaps more than the $10 million cash," Sheerin stated. "I have every confidence we can make a launch before the end of the year."

That's an interesting point that I hadn't considered. Even though the money turns into a pumpkin at the end of December, there could still be an X-Prize winner next year--the trophy remains available indefinitely, and in many cases this is being done for fun and prestige--the purse is just gravy, at least if you're Paul Allen.

It's also having the hoped-for effect of spurring new businesses--XCOR, Rocketplane, and others may soon have some interesting competition:

Meanwhile, groups like Israel’s IL Aerospace Technologies have frozen the design of their Negev suborbital reusable launch vehicle system. "We are now in the process of raising the funds to build it, test it, and certify it for commercial use. We are definitely looking beyond the X Prize at this point," said Dov Chartarifsky, founder and chief executive officer of the company.

"Our company is striving to become one of the first, if not the first private entity to establish a self-sufficient space venture targeted at space tourism and other emerging markets," Chartarifsky said. "Our company objective is to begin the commercialization stage of our program by mid-2007."

Chartarifsky said that while the company may not meet the X Prize deadline, ILAT is "very much alive and well."

For some reason, there was no mention of any entries from an Arab nation.

The usual frustrations continue, though:

Needless to say, building human-carrying rocket hardware is a tough challenge. But paperwork alone can leave you stranded on Earth...

...Armadillo’s launch license is currently stalled on the environmental assessment, Carmack reported.

"If I was willing to throw a million dollars at the problem by hiring the right firms to write the environmental impact statement and finish the launch license, things could get done faster, but I'm not willing to toss that kind of money at parasitic paperwork," he said.

This was always one of the concerns of the FAA-AST launch licensing route. If it were being regulated by FAA-AVR, this wouldn't be an issue because aviation has a categorical exclusion from the Environmental Protection Act, but launch regulation does not. This may be the next regulatory frontier to tackle, but it would certainly stir up the environmentalist hornets' nest.

I hope to be talking to John Carmack, and others at this week's Space Access Conference (which can still be attended, for anyone who can get to Phoenix by Thursday--by the way, Henry Vanderbilt has the latest news roundup on space transports, X-Prize and the president's lunar/Mars initiative at the Space Access Society site now).

I'd say that, based on this, even if the prize money expires unwon at the end of the year, that the prize was a success. As Peter points out, tens of millions of R&D have been generated for a couple dozen new concepts, and I think that this probably evolved the state of the art of reusable rockets much more than the billions that NASA wasted in the nineties on the subject.

In fact, if the insurance company wins the bet, ironically, it may make it easier to raise money for the next one, at least via that route. But I hope that Burt (or even better, someone else) wins, and that they lose, because it will show a lot of people and investors the danger of relying on "industry experts" who tell you something can't be done.

[Update on Wednesday]

Both Nathan Horsley and Jim Bennett in comments correct me on the categorical aviation exclusion issue (which is fine with me, if true--the fewer valid arguments for giving regulation to AVR, the better, as far as I'm concerned). Regardless, whatever the solution, NEPA is serving as a barrier to a fledgling industry, and some solution to this problem should be sought.

Posted by Rand Simberg at April 20, 2004 09:15 AM
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I will be curious to see whether any of the other teams close up shop after the prize is won. There are several that get points for effort, but some would have to pay me a large amount of money to strap in for a launch.

Legal nit-picking (if this bores you, just move on, nothing to see here):

There is no such thing as an environmental protection act (in the US). You may be referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, and conflating it with the Environmental Protection Agency. Either way, aviation is not exempted or granted any overarching categorical exclusion. There is no requirement for NEPA compliance for vehicle builders, but airports do have to provide environmental impact statements that are virtually the same as for launch sites. The Clean Air Act also applies to all aviation pointsources (such as planes and launchers in the airspace), but its requirements are toned down for aircraft (as opposed to automobiles, not launchers) and enforcement is basically left to the DoT, so the FAA will functionally be the final word. The FAA also monitors the emissions of aircraft in a way that is similar to what they are requiring for launchers.

The aviation industry did get off comparitively easy early in its development, but by the time the environmental regulations were created, it had the advantage of a strong international regime that it could argue already set environmental standards (the FAA emissions rules just enact the international standards).

All of this will hopefully be much less important soon. If only the Senate will get off its duff and pass something that can be made consistent with the House version of the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, experimental class permits will get rid of the most costly environmental requirements.

Posted by Nathan Horsley at April 20, 2004 11:32 PM

Nathan is exactly right on the issue of whether the aviation catex would apply to suborbital activities if they were assigned to AVR. It's a myth that relabelling the activities would cause them to fall under the catex. People who think that just don't understand how NEPA works.

Posted by Jim Bennett at April 21, 2004 08:28 AM

Exactly. Mojave's site license filing draws heavily from three recent environmental filings. The X-33 work done at Edwards AFB, a current runway extension at Mojave, and the recent construction of a new Rt 58 hiway around the town. Otherwise, the financial burden may have been too much.

Posted by Dan DeLong at April 21, 2004 01:57 PM

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