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Monday, August 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Underdogs' spacecraft explodes on 1st launch
By Sandi Doughton
The spectacular mishap rained debris on the beach and into the Pacific Ocean, and probably ended the duo's long-shot attempt to win a $10 million space race.
But Phillip Storm, president of the two-man company called Space Transport Corp., said they will continue trying to build rockets that can ferry tourists and payloads into space cheaply.
"We're disappointed, but not extremely disappointed because this was the first test flight," Storm said, standing by the remnants of one of the rocket's engines. "NASA lost several rockets before they got something good."
Then he sighed deeply and rubbed his smudged hands through his hair. "It's just too bad."
"The occupant was decapitated," he deadpanned.
Storm and his partner, Eric Meier, both 26, had hoped a successful flight by the Rubicon rocket would attract investors to their cash-strapped endeavor based in the former logging town of Forks, Clallam County.
More money, they said, was the only way they could hope to compete with 25 other teams for the X Prize, a $10 million bounty for the first private company that develops a manned space vehicle.
"We're definitely the underdogs," Storm said before the launch. "We're underfunded and understaffed, but we think we've got what it takes."
The pair have raised $220,000, about half from their families and personal savings and the rest from people on the Olympic Peninsula who have embraced the romance of a local rocket port.
Forks contractor Darrel Gaydeski had toiled on the 2,500-pound rocket most of the previous day, then used his heavy equipment to load it on the launcher and haul it down winding forest roads to the launch site. He shrugged as he reviewed video he shot of the explosion.
"I'm just helping some friends, doing what I can," he said.
"Hey, the government has wasted way more money and time than we have," Gaydeski said with a grin.
Steve Imholt, an investor from Sequim, isn't ready to quit, either.
"It was so pretty and we worked so hard on it," he said, as he stared at a huge dent in the portable, steel rocket-launcher. "Ahh, but you can't give up on them just like kids."
Minutes after the disaster, Storm, a mathematician, was analyzing the problem, which he attributed to a bubble in the solid rocket fuel. "We can learn from this," he said.
That's the kind of attitude the sponsors of the X Prize say they're hoping to encourage.
Modeled after the $25,000 prize that inspired Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, the X-Prize offers $10 million to the first team that sends a manned spacecraft to the edge of space twice within two weeks.
Though far short of what's required to actually boost a spacecraft into orbit, supporters say meeting that goal could galvanize the commercial space industry, paving the way for space tourism and cheaper satellite launches.
The prize is bankrolled by corporations and private donors, including actor Tom Hanks and Erik Lindbergh, Charles Lindbergh's grandson.
Allen has spent $20 million on SpaceShipOne, a two-stage airplane and rocket system designed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan. In June, it became the first of the X-Prize contenders to launch a person to the edge of space, during a test flight from California's Mojave Desert.
On Sept. 29, the group intends to make its formal bid for the prize, with the second flight set for Oct. 4 the anniversary of the Soviet Sputnik launch.
And the Canadian da Vinci Project last week announced plans to use a helium balloon to launch its bright red Wild Fire rocket from Saskatchewan Oct. 2.
If the other contenders are reminiscent of James Bond cars in their complexity, the Forks version is more like a 1970 Volkswagen Beetle.
It's a solid fuel rocket with a crude passenger capsule sandwiched between the cylindrical engines and the nose cone.
Yesterday's launch was intended to propel the rocket four miles high, after which it would splash down in the ocean supported by parachutes. Meier was standing by in a boat about a mile offshore to retrieve the rocket, which was meant to be reusable.
Meier and Storm are former employees of Aerojet, a Redmond company that designs and builds satellite thrusters and power systems for the space shuttle. In addition to their Rubicon rocket, they are developing two smaller rocket systems that could be used to loft small payloads to the outer reaches of the atmosphere.
It's a slow process, requiring many tests to work out the bugs, Meier said Saturday, as he, Storm and their helpers worked to prepare the Rubicon.
"We try to be humble," he said, "because in this business you will be humbled."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or email@example.com.
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