Can aviation’s newest spectator sport lead to routine space travel?

A four-place kitplane with a pusher propeller, the Velocity SE FG offered a sturdy off-the-shelf airframe for a rocket-engine modification. (Velocity Aircraft)
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At one end of the track, two racing aircraft are poised less than 50 feet apart at a starting line. They silently exhale mist from vents in the fuselage liquid-oxygen tanks. When the gun sounds, their 1,500-pound-thrust rocket engines ignite, hurling the racers down the runway past the fans and throwing back brilliant 10-foot kerosene flames: 0 to 200 in 15 seconds. At the end of the straightaway, the rocketplanes pull vertical and shoot straight up on pillars of fire. At about 3,000 feet, they pitch over inverted, roll, and, engines now off, dive through an invisible gate to follow a course that twists and turns like a roller-coaster track.

The pilots see the course superimposed on the sky around them by helmet-mounted displays. As the first pair dive silently into the first roller-coaster drop, two more rocketplanes launch. Eventually six pairs of racers are weaving around the serpentine, five-mile course.
At several points the undulating tunnel will sharply ascend, forcing the pilots to re-ignite their engines for the power to get uphill. At least one climb will be designed at a point where the racers are facing away from the spectators, treating them to the full concussive power of rocket thrust, which they will feel in their chests as well as hear. Intermittently lighting the rocket engines, the racers will dash and glide, competing in a four-lap heat lasting about 14 minutes.

On jumbo TV screens set up near the runway, a computer-augmented display will show the rocketplanes and the courses they’re flying. No two racers will be following exactly the same course. Instead, each racer will follow its own predetermined path, generated by computer, based on GPS-provided coordinates, and painted on the jumbotrons like the yellow line on television screens that shows football fans where the ball must reach for a first down.

Because the individual race courses all differ, they considerably reduce the potential for a mid-air collision, a scenario that the Reno Air Racing Association in Nevada spends a great deal of time training pilots who race around ground pylons to avoid. In a rocket racing event, each aircraft flies its own private proficiency race: The pilot strives to make the most efficient use of the racer’s fuel, which will produce thrust for no more than 200 seconds. And therein lies the real contest.

“This is really going to be a thinking man’s game,” says former space shuttle commander Rick Searfoss, who is the chief test pilot for XCOR Aerospace, the Mojave, California company building the rocketplanes. “It’s very much a matter of flying parameters, managing energy.” It will be of considerable importance, for example, how the pilots manage speed during dives and how much energy they use during each following climb to the next set of gates. The fender-bumping, paint-trading competition of NASCAR will be replaced with something closer to a three-dimensional chess match at 200 mph. The proximity of other racers in the sky is more a strategy to generate excitement among the spectators than a factor affecting the competition.

Because rocket racing will rely on a course defined by data, not by pylons or oval tracks, it has two advantages over the motorsports of Reno and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. First, a computer-designed course allows for experimentation and refinement without costly surveying and marking. Second, a much larger audience than the fans in the grandstands can watch—and play. While 12 racers will be alternately roaring and gliding in the real sky, the viewer at home will be looking at 13 rocketplanes. The extra competitor will be the fan’s own entry, controlled by a joystick on a game console: He or she will fly a virtual racer, create a strategy, and experience everything in the race except the G forces and the smell of the cockpit.

That’s what the Rocket Racing League hopes to bring to race venues and the fans at home.

The league, formed in October 2005 by X-Prize creator Peter Diamandis and financier and Indy car team owner Granger Whitelaw, is looking forward to the first flight of its X-racer this fall. Three independent teams—and two more owned by the League—have each paid the $100,000 ante to race, a down payment on the $1.2 million rocketplane, which the league has named Thunderhawk. Annual operating costs and racing fees could run each team owner another $500,000. The league expects to offer a purse starting at $1 million.

There had been four independent teams: Leading Edge Rocket Racing, the first to sign on, withdrew last May because it and the league had “incompatible business practices and communication standards.” Team owners Don Grantham Jr. and Robert Rickard, business partners in Phoenix, Arizona, and F-16 pilots with the Air Force Reserve, had expected a handsome return on their investment. “We looked at the closest comparison we could, which is NASCAR,” Grantham said last November, “and compared it to the potential we have with RRL. It took 40 years to progress from racing on the sand in Florida to the spectacle it is today. Title sponsorship is worth about $20 million to top teams, and the NASCAR merchandising business as a whole generates $1.5 billion annually.” That earning potential, though, depends on the development of a racing airplane.

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