Some months from now Feeney will travel with his team of engineers to a remote location in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. He will don a state-of-the-art spacesuit and climb into Wildfire, a space rocket currently being built in the Toronto area by the organization he heads up known as the da Vinci Project. And then . . .
Hang on. Sounds like Feeney’s been lurking in Scruffy Murphy’s for far too long. Isn’t this just a particularly spectacular piece of Canadian blarney?
When you visit Feeney’s offices and meet some of his 200-strong team of engineers and staffers, all volunteers, you realize that this venture is deadly serious.
Then there’s something else: to kick-start his ride into space Feeney needs about $5 million Canadian — and he’s just $600,000 short of that total.
“In the last week we landed a major Fortune 500 U.S. company,” he said laconically, but won’t reveal the company’s name just yet.
If you still need convincing, just ask Feeney why on earth he’s going to space.
“It’s really simple: because I want to go there,” he said evenly, but you won’t miss the edge of passion. “I live in the universe and my backyard is the galaxy.”
The spirit of Lindbergh
The more practical story of how Feeney has come to have a shot at being the first civilian — indeed, the first Irishman (by way of Canadian birth) — to blast into space in their own privately built space craft starts with something called the X Prize.
An American concept, the X Prize is a competition inspired by the example of an American hero of the early 20th century, Charles Lindbergh.
In 1927, Lindbergh, with limited private funding, beat several more powerful competitors to be the first aviator to fly the Atlantic in one trip. His success spurred investors and companies to open up the first trans-Atlantic commercial airlines.
X Prize founders believe they can repeat this with a competition to fly into space, opening up a new era of space travel for ordinary people.
There’s a $10 million prize to jumpstart the space tourism industry “through competition between the most talented entrepreneurs and rocket experts in the world,” says the X Prize website (www.xprize.org).
Here are the terms for winning: “The $10 million cash prize will be awarded to the first team that privately finances, builds and launches a spaceship, able to carry three people to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles) and returns safely to Earth. The team must then repeat the launch with the same ship within 2 weeks.”
To date, 24 teams are competing for the prize.
Feeney’s da Vinci Project has a suite of offices on Eglington Avenue and a staff of around 200, of whom about 35 are engineers, such as Russian-born Vladimir Kudriatsev whose expertise is in life-support systems.
Feeney’s team is a typically multiethnic, Canadian one — Kudriatsev is only one of several immigrants on board.
And it’s typically Canadian in another way, which Feeney seemed a little hesitant to admit to. Most of the 24 X Prize competitors are U.S. ventures. Feeney said that “three or four teams have pulled ahead of the pack,” including his. Underlying the team’s passionate discussions about its goal is the sense that its members like to have a chance to stick it to their bigger, brasher neighbors to the south.
It comes across thus: Feeney and Kudriatsev praise NASA for its achievements over the years but offer up forceful criticism of how space travel and exploration has stagnated at the behest of a government-run organization like NASA.
“We are not trying to be a NASA or even pretending to be them,” Feeney said. “I’m not saying they don’t have talented people. There are talented people in NASA but they’re tied into this massive bureaucracy.”
Pausing, he then completes his argument with a particularly American flourish: “If we the people want to do space, then let the people do it.”
In short, if space travel and experimentation had been left up to private entrepreneurs like him in the 1950s and ’60s, Feeney asserts that a trip to space would be today as common as taking a 747 across the Atlantic.
If Feeney “slips the surly bonds of earth” and doesn’t kill himself, he will be, briefly, the most famous man on earth and NASA will have a new competitor on its hands.
To reinforce the point, the da Vinci project website shows two photos side by side.
One is of the NASA Atlas V launch site: a vast, rambling, angular and ugly complex of buildings and towers. The photo is entitled “Them.” The other photo is “an empty field in Saskatchewan.” It’s entitled “Us.”
And so to discussing Wildfire, the name of Feeney’s chariot of fire.
All over the walls of Feeney’s offices are a series of artful drawings and images of what his spacecraft will ultimately look like.
“The design is simple yet elegant,” Kudriatsev said. “And it’s a fully reusable concept, unlike even the space shuttle.”
The mention of the space shuttle begs one question underlying this whole project. After the loss of the Columbia space shuttle on Feb. 1 this year, does that not suggest that even with the massive backing of a NASA-sized safety net, space travel is ultimately a high-risk, often deadly business?
Not if you build a simple, strong and completely reusable rocket ship, is the response.
“The crucial thing to get past is that rockets should be disposable,” Feeney said. “Reentry is the real name of this game, coming back down and landing safely.”
And here’s how the da Vinci team have planned it.
Wildfire will be attached to an enormous helium balloon in Saskatchewan and, upon launch, will float to an altitude of 80,000 feet at an angle of 15 degrees from vertical.
At that height, the balloon will release and simultaneously the liquid oxygen-kerosene mix engine will fire, and carry Feeney, test pilot number one, to 100 kilometers above the earth with 10,000 pounds of thrust.
Then “the spacecraft then will transition to vertical flight to its apogee of 120 kilometers in space.” Upon reentry, a “ballute” — a combination of a balloon and a parachute — will deploy “at 25,000 feet and the rocket will descend under control, guided by GPS, to a predetermined landing zone.”
So how safe is this contraption? Feeney brushed off skeptical questions with ease, though he is in no doubt of the risks he will undertake: “space has no sense of humor,” he noted at one point.
Of his actual cabin in Wildfire, he said: “It’s a 3 milimeter Kevlar sphere that can survive 80 atmospheres of pressure. The sphere is auto-righting. It has a half-inch thermal protection.”
He brought up a diagram on a laptop that showed how the da Vinci team discovered the unusual heating properties of a sphere sizzling through the earth’s atmosphere on reentry from space.
They found unexpectedly high temperatures on the portion of the sphere facing away from the most intense friction where the bow shockwave forms — in the overall effort, a vitally important discovery and further evidence that the da Vinci project is no team of weekend gadget inventors.
Indeed, it was the team’s focus on safety that first convinced Marc Garneau, the first-ever Canadian astronaut (Garneau traveled on NASA) and head of the Canadian Space Agency, that the da Vinci project was deserving of support.
Feeney said he will undertake a modest fitness program in time for the first flight and will also be trained to deal with the extreme g-forces that he’ll experience.
There are plenty of selfish reasons for undertaking this trip: fame and fortune are but two.
But Feeney has not neglected other reasons. His team has helped develop science education programs that will debut across Canada in the fall.
“This also puts Saskatchewan on the map,” Feeney said of one of Canada’s wildest and most deserted provinces.
Said Kudriatsev firmly: “Brian is willing to put his life where his mouth is.”
Afterward, in Scruffy Murphy’s, one day closer to his flight, Feeney thought again about his perilous mission.
“You know, as I go into space, I’ll be remembering the taste of beer, the smell of grass,” he said. “I will be dead in 60 years. Life is too precious not to go.”
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