October 21, 2006 8:44 AM PDT

Pumping up the space industry

LAS CRUCES, N.M.--If you want to pump up a future space industry, hold a two-day festival, complete with famous astronauts, government officials, and cool space tech and games.

That's the thinking behind the Wirefly X Prize Cup, which opened Friday at Las Cruces International Airport to a crowd of nearly 10,000, half of whom were school kids. Now in its second year, the show had a campy feel that's part rocket air show, part kids science expo and part space-geek dream.

Some highlights of the day included a daredevil's ride by jet pack, several high-powered rocket launches and the unveiling of the Rocket Racing League's new X-Racer spacecraft. There were also a few duds during the day, including a rocket bike that didn't spark and NASA's Lunar Lander Challenge, which had only one competitor that caught fire.

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"It's a little bit of show and tell here, but with fireworks attached," said Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the X Prize Foundation and the Rocket Raching League, which aspires to be the next Nascar, but for rocketry.

Yet the organizers are quite serious about invigorating a new age of commercial space exploration. They were backed up by a list of impressive speakers on Thursday, including astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, and Anousheh Ansari, who just completed a trip in the Russian-made Soyuz rocket as the first female tourist in space.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson also made an appearance, boasting the state's burgeoning role in space tourism with a Federal Administration Agency-approved space airport--or spaceport (one of seven in U.S.)--under development, and the Rocket Racing League (RRL) based here.

"We're turning a corner (in space exploration), and New Mexico is at the center of it," said Richardson. "It means jobs, economic development and new technology."

The air show was likely the biggest attraction for the crowds. The RRL, for example, simulated what it will be like to watch one of its racers run a closed 3D course in the sky, or what Diamondis called a "raceway in the sky." The RRL didn't show off its X-Racer, its official aircraft, but it used a Lear Jet to run a virtual course over the Las Cruces mountains. The RRL did, however, unveil a mockup of the X-Racer, which the league plans to race in the summer or early fall of 2007.

Not part of RRL, another F-18 flew overhead later in the day. And Rocket Man, a daredevil strapped to a jetpack, wowed the crowd by zooming upward nearly 80 feet on his hydrogen peroxide-powered rocket, which nearly deafened those within a mile radius. Each ride lasted only 30 seconds, when his fuel expired.

It's a little bit of show and tell here, but with fireworks attached.
--Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the X Prize Foundation

After the flight, Rocket Man Dan Schlund said the experience was like "flying a unicycle."

Tripoli Rockets, a nonprofit rocketry association, also launched two high-powered rockets throughout the day, but with major delays. The first rocket went off without a hitch, but the rocket's parachute failed to open and it essentially crashed in a plume of smoke. The company was originally planning to compete in the Lunar Lander Challenge, but it didn't finish its design in time.

Tripoli's second rocket, the Phoenix XL, lifted off in a spectacle, however. The 16.5-foot, 300-pound rocket flew straight up to 22,000 feet, to a point in which the crowd couldn't see it any longer. A parachute eventually opened and carried the rocket nose to the ground.

A big part of the X Prize was focused on child education. On Friday, the X Prize Foundation had bussed in 5,000 school kids to explore NASA exhibits, watch rockets take off and practice their virtual reality flying skills from the Rocket Racing League booth.

Getting kids enthusiastic about space exploration, and in turn science, will invigorate the next generation of technology development, according to Richardson and the event planners.

Diamandis said the X Prize Foundation's mission is to change the math behind space flight. As it is now, only one out of 10,000 people will fly into space. Now with many new commercial space ventures, like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, that equation is changing, he said. Encouraging the industry, the foundation held a summit during the week that drew more than 150 executives, including former Vice President Al Gore.

"The more people that can fly, that will bring the price of flying down," Diamandis said.

Aldrin spoke here Thursday about the future of space exploration, highlighting the importance of private industry.

"Government has a responsibility to the populace on the whole and to protect U.S. security," said Aldrin, adding that its work is good for research and knowledge acquisition. But if the United States wants to stay ahead of other countries with space aspirations, then it needs to turn to private industry to innovate. "Other people will be there if we just sit on the ground."

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