Rocket racing: taking off next year?

In an article in this week’s issue of The Space Review, I look at the status of the Rocket Racing League (RRL), which was formally introduced to the public three years ago this month. The RRL took a big step forward about two and a half months ago, with its first public flights of the X-Racer vehicle at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. Since then, though, there have been some interesting—perhaps even odd—developments, namely the RRL’s decision to go solely with the alternative engine developed by Armadillo Aerospace, and tested in late August and early September. RRL co-founder Granger Whitelaw said that XCOR’s engine, which by all accounts performed well at Oshkosh and in previous tests, did not meet the RRL’s “standards of safety, reliability, reusability, and performance”, according to one press account. That’s puzzled many observers, given XCOR’s good reputation as a developer of a number of safe and successful rocket engines.

RRL did not respond to my inquiries last week, but on Tuesday they did announce that they have won FAA approval to perform X-Racer flights at a number of airports in the US. The league plans to select eight venues of the 20 approved by the FAA for exhibition flights in 2009, to be followed by competitive racing in 2010. The venues include several airshows, including EAA AirVenture and the Reno Air Races, and other airports scattered around the country, including Mojave, Las Cruces, and Moffett Field near NASA Ames in the Bay Area.

One of those eight appears likely to be Oshkosh, Whitelaw tells MSNBC. Production of the racers—which use an airframe from Velocity Aircraft, now owned by the RRL, and an Armadillo engine—will ramp up early next year, with two to four planes ready by Oshkosh. Whitelaw also said that the RRL is looking into “vertical drag racers” (which, as it sounds, would be rockets taking off straight up for a short sprint to a predefined altitude) for next year as well, a concept that’s been promoted by Armadillo’s John Carmack for a few years.

The most intriguing part of the MSNBC story, though, is at the end, where Whitelaw hints that his partnership with Armadillo might extend beyond developing engines for the RRL. Whitelaw said plans for an RRL demo at next week’s International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) were cancelled because “we need to focus on winning the Lunar Lander Challenge.” [Emphasis added.] When asked if the RRL was in talks to purchase Armadillo, Whitelaw only provided a “no comment”. While the RRL might be interested in acquiring Armadillo to be vertically integrated (just as it acquired Velocity), it’s not obvious what Armadillo would gain from such a deal.

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