Harry Dace and Jim Akkerman say they'll launch a rocket next year, on the 4th of July. There will be six people on board. With that launch, and another one in the same rocket less than two weeks later, they intend to win a $10 million prize put up by the X-Prize Foundation of St. Louis. They also hope to lead the way in what could turn out to be a multi-billion dollar industry of the 21st century: Space Tourism.
Dace is the businessman behind the plan. Akkerman is the engineer responsible for the rocket.
Dace has done well for himself. Now in his early 40s, he's built a successful company in Brazoria County, Texas, where he manufactures air-conditioning ductwork. But three years ago, he decided he wanted to do something new. He went to Jim Akkerman.
The two men had met before. The first time, Dace was just 13, and Akkerman was already an engineer at Johnson Space Center in Houston. But what Dace shared with Akkerman then was a love of go-carts. Alongside his serious space engineering, Akkerman built the hottest go-carts around, and held a bunch of speed records. He was young Harry Dace's hero.
By luck, Dace's father -- also in the air-conditioning business -- was doing a big installation at Johnson Space Center and happened to meet Akkerman. When the subject of go-carts came up, Akkerman invited Dace's son, Harry, to visit his shop. Harry jumped at the chance and was awed by the high-tech go-carts Akkerman was building.
Years later, go-carts long forgotten, Dace was feeling restless in the air-conditioning business. Jim Akkerman came to mind. What was that guy up to, anyway?
The two got together and soon hatched a wild plan which Dace named the Civilian Astronaut Corps. The idea was, and still is, to sign up at least 2,000 people at $3,500 each for charter membership in the Civilian Astronaut Corps, which happens to include a reserved seat on one of the early launches of their rocket, the Mayflower II. With those funds, they'll build the rocket.
In effect, the ticket holders own the rocket. This cuts way down on liability, in case something goes wrong, because the ticket holders are actually flying in their own vehicle. But if everything goes according to plan, Dace says, he and Akkerman will have the option of buying the rocket back. With the money from the X-Prize.
So far, Dace has signed up 20 members in the Civilian Astronaut Corps. He says he's confident of finding the rest by this coming summer, so serious work can begin on the Mayflower II.
Akkerman hopes Dace is right about that, because he wants to build the rocket.
Building rockets is something Akkerman is good at. He helped design the propulsion system for the Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon. He's designed lots of rocket engines and components since. He's a maverick who likes to try unusual things. He immodestly told Dace that, if Dace could produce the funding, Akkerman would build him "the best rocket ever designed."
Akkerman's own company, Advent Launch Systems, will build the Mayflower II. According to plan, it will be 70 feet long and weigh 15,000 pounds. It has a titanium structure with two 10,000-gallon-capacity fuel tanks: one for liquid natural gas, one for liquid oxygen. A cockpit will perch at the top of the rocket; directly below it will be a detachable passenger module 15 feet long and six feet in diameter. At the bottom of the rocket will be eight TRW engines, each capable of producing 5,000 pounds of thrust.
The really unusual thing about Mayflower II is that it launches from the ocean. It starts out literally in the water, bobbing in the waves, nose up. The engines fire under water, and off it goes, straight up. Saves a lot of money on launch pad costs.
Then, after travel about 62 miles into the air, it turns around and begins a controlled descent, somewhat like the space shuttle. At the top of the trajectory, passengers will experience about four minutes of weightlessness and a breathtaking view of the earth below. The glide down should be fairly routine. However, the landing, like the take-off, is somewhat unconventional: in the water. Saves a lot on runway costs and reduces the likelihood of a crash.
The whole flight will last about 15 minutes.
Dace and Akkerman have already found their pilot for the initial flights. That would be Vaughn Cordle, a 42-year-old who's flown 767s for United Airlines for the past 13 years. Cordle became involved in the project after a friend of his signed up for the inaugural flight.
To hear him talk about it, you might think Cordle has done this sort of thing before. "When it comes back into the atmosphere," he says, "it's going to be traveling pretty fast, about 3,500 miles per hour. So around 30,000 feet, that's when I'll start bringing the nose back a little bit. I'll just ease it back, slow it down, and put it in the water. It won't be gentle; it'll be kind of a rough ride. But the landing and the gliding in, to me, are going to be a very safe operation. I don't take risks. I stay inside the envelope."
There are at least 16 teams of civilian engineers and space enthusiasts seriously vying for the X-Prize, which will be awarded to the first team that can safely launch and land a passenger rocket twice within two weeks. Some of those people think the plans of Dace and Akkerman are crazy.
But Gregg E. Maryniak, chief operations officer of the X-Prize Foundation, disagrees. He compares the Mayflower II with Charles Lindbergh's legendary aircraft, the "Spirit of St. Louis," an inspiration for the X-Prize. In Lindbergh's day, many people were competing for a prize that would be awarded to the first pilot or team to fly across the Atlantic Ocean non-stop.
"Lindbergh had completely different technology from all the other teams," says Maryniak. "He had a very lean approach. One pilot, single engine, relatively light aircraft. And because he had such a simple approach, he won. But he was definitely the dark horse at the time."
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