Gentlemen, Start Your Rockets

A group of space entrepreneurs is trying to get the Rocket Racing League off the launchpad

Out in the Mojave Desert, amid the tumbleweed and dust funnels, a new racing league is taking shape. A sign welcomes visitors to the home of SpaceShipOne—the first privately financed aircraft to leave earth's atmosphere. Here, in a small, bustling hangar, workers are carefully assembling one of the league's first racers, an exotic hybrid that's part experimental airplane and part rocket.

If all goes as planned, this aircraft will make its maiden flight in October. And next year a half dozen such planes could fire up with a chest-thumping rumble, blast off vertically, and emit 10-foot yellow plumes as they climb about one mile up. Then they'll hurtle around a giant virtual racetrack in the sky at speeds approaching 320 miles per hour, separated from one another by just a few hundred feet. NASCAR it's not—that's for the timid. Rocket racing could well evolve into America's riskiest, noisiest, and nuttiest new sport.

The Rocket Racing League (RRL) is the brainchild of Peter H. Diamandis, the P.T. Barnum of the commercial space movement. The 46-year-old entrepreneur drew national attention in October, 2004, when his X Prize Foundation gave away $10 million to a team financed by billionaire Paul Allen. The money was their reward for being the first to send a privately funded manned craft, SpaceShipOne, 100 kilometers up into space two times in a two-week period.

Diamandis has since expanded into space tourism. He says he has sold more than 3,000 trips, at $3,500 a pop, to people who want to experience weightlessness in specially outfitted Boeing (BA ) 727s, and claims to have booked five tourists for spaceflights on rockets launched in Kazakhstan, charging $25 million a passage.

Tourism and entertainment, he says, are "industries that have the potential to excite people about space travel," and Diamandis aims to marry the two. October's demo flight of the first real rocket racer will coincide with a space science festival he sponsors every year in New Mexico, dubbed the X Prize Cup. At that event, teams of privately funded space engineers will compete in simulated demonstrations of how to land a spacecraft on the moon and blast it back toward earth. Whichever team does it best will receive part of $2 million in prize money from NASA.


Diamandis' partner in rocket racing is Granger B. Whitelaw, a venture capitalist with two Indianapolis 500 winners on his financing résumé and a Rolodex of space-enthusiast millionaires. Now all Diamandis and Whitelaw need to do is get some planes in the air, and find about three more teams (three have already signed on) willing to spend $1.2 million to buy a racer. And, yes, they need to find a network willing to bring it all to a TV audience that may or may not exist.

So far, Diamandis and Whitelaw have had little trouble luring money and big names to their venture. They say they have raised a total of nearly $10 million from the likes of financier and America's Cup champion William I. Koch and video gaming guru Ramy Weitz, both of whom are on RRL's board. Charles Lindbergh's grandson Erik signed on as a spokesman, and the William Morris Agency agreed to help find sponsors. The team also got incentives and free land from New Mexico to locate their headquarters there. RRL CEO Whitelaw "is crazy, but a good kind of crazy," says New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. "You have to be a little nuts to be in this business."

To outdo the "ooh and aah" experience of a NASA rocket launch, the RRL wants to maximize the number of mesmerizing blastoffs. So each plane is expected to make about five short pit stops in the course of a 90-minute race. "NASA blastoffs are once-in-a-lifetime for some people," says Diamandis. "We want to give them those experiences dozens of times in an afternoon." The simulated sky track, complete with NASCAR-like curves and straightaways, will be outlined electronically on pilots' heads-up displays. The race will also be projected on giant JumboTrons for crowds on the ground, telecast to TV screens, and streamed to computers and game consoles, along with pictures shot in the cockpits and from helicopters and blimps. "We intend to pull out all the stops," says veteran reality-TV producer Arthur Smith, who was hired to create the programs that will cost roughly $1 million for each of the eight or so annual races.

The spindly winged airplanes are made by Velocity Inc., a manufacturer of experimental aircraft in Sebastian, Fla. Then XCOR Aerospace Inc. in Mojave, Calif., outfits them with rockets, which, unlike jet engines, mix oxygen and kerosene in their own combustion chambers. Both companies have contracts with the racing league, which sells the finished planes to team owners, who can then plaster them with sponsor decals. The RRL chose XCOR because its EZ-Rocket has made more than 20 suborbital flights for the U.S. Air Force using an engine that burns liquid oxygen and kerosene. "It's going to be one heck of a ride," says team owner and potential rocketeer Jim Bridenstine, a retired U.S. Navy pilot who flew missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Prizes could run about $100,000 per race, Whitelaw figures.

But the rewards for successful racing could be much greater. The league plans to license technology it develops as the races evolve, and it already has three patents, including one on virtual raceways in the sky. One thing the league wants to perfect is a quick turnaround between landings and takeoffs, something that will appeal to every spaceflight company hoping to turn a profit on recreational rides. "There is going to be a space tourism business, and we want to be a piece of it," says another team owner, Albuquerque land developer Marc R. Cumbow, who owns hotels and a travel agency.

Rocket racing, of course, has its doubters. Despite the huge crowds that throng annually to air shows, no one knows if anyone will troop to New Mexico, Reno, Nev., and other sites to see rocket races. And no TV network will likely pony up money until they do, says TV consultant Neal Pilson, former head of CBS Sports (CBS ). For now, Whitelaw figures he'll offer the races free to the TV networks and sell the ads himself—a strategy used for years in pro wrestling and Formula One racing. Two large broadcast networks have expressed interest, he says.

"I am highly skeptical of rocket racing, but hope it will be successful," says one of the space industry's leading entrepreneurs, Jim Benson, founder of commercial space technology company SpaceDev Inc. (SPDV ) "The general public needs the kind of interest and enthusiasm it had for space in the 1950s through the 1970s." That's exactly how folks at the Rocket Racing League feel about it. And they've just launched another $25 million financing round for potential investors.

By Ronald Grover

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