A new, Canadian commercial spacecraft prototype could launch as soon as next year, a former contender for the Ansari X Prize hopes.
"We feel extremely confident that we can be airborne within 2011," said Brian Feeney of the new spacecraft project that grew out of the Toronto-based Da Vinci Project.
"Are we getting to space by the end of 2011? You can't say for absolute certainty until you're airborne and you're flight testing," he said Friday.
The Da Vinci Project and the London, Ont.-based Canadian Arrow were among the 26 teams from seven countries vying for the Ansari X Prize. The competition promised $10 million to the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometres above the Earth's surface, twice within two weeks.
In 2004, it was awarded to the Scaled Composite team for their craft SpaceShipOne, which became the prototype for Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson.
But neither of the Canadian teams gave up after losing the race.
Geoff Sheerin, president of Canadian Arrow, teamed up with U.S. entrepreneur Chirinjeev Kathuria to form Chicago-based Planetspace Corp. in 2005. According to the company's website, it specializes in space services such as transporting cargo and crew to the International Space Station, space tourism and the delivery of satellites into orbit.
Meanwhile, Feeney and his team of 1,000 volunteers continued working on the Wildfire, a ballistic rocket-style craft that was to be lifted to its launch altitude by a helium balloon.
In the end, the rocket never did blast off.
Feeney shut down the project in 2006 and founded a private company called DreamSpace Group to work on a new, airplane-like commercial tourism spacecraft called the XF1: "It's got wings, it takes off from a runway, it flies by itself up to a launch altitude of 50,000 feet plus, it fires its rocket engines, it goes up into space, it re-enters, and it lands on the same runway."
Feeney plans to run the new spacecraft entirely on biofuel from non-food sources such as algae, using liquid oxygen as an oxidizer.
Like the Wildfire, the XF1 will use carbon fibre as a structural material. A lot of the experience from the Da Vinci project in developing flight software, life support systems to maintain cabin air pressure in space and developing and testing engines is being incorporated into the development of the new spacecraft, Feeney said.
But the huge, unwieldy team of 1,000 Da Vinci Project volunteers has been replaced by just half a dozen DreamSpace Group staff. Half a dozen more people are working on the XF1's propulsion system through a private partner company based in California.
Up until now, the project has relied on funding left over from the Da Vinci project from sponsors like the online casino GoldenPalace.com.
But Feeney estimates he will need $2.5 million in venture capital funding to build an XF1 prototype carrying one person and another $12.5 million to build two commercial three-person spacecraft.
He hopes to launch a new website and begin approaching investors in December, but admits it poses a challenge.
"In a young industry that's not proven, you're always running up against the 'Can you demonstrate to…the venture capital community that you can manage the risk and get to the marketplace?'"
Feeney himself is confident in the profitability of the space tourism market and hopes to charge between $50,000 and $100,000 per flight for space tourists — less than half of what Virgin Galactic says it will charge.
The company also intends provide transport into space for scientific experiments. In a document provided to NASA in February, Feeney estimated that the company would charge $89,000 to carry a full load of scientific equipment on an unmanned flight, and would charge $49,900 to bring one person and half a load, provided another passenger had purchased the other seat and agreed to the deal.
As for the Canadian Arrow team, the company is now likely not going to fly a Canadian Arrow rocket as a space tourism vehicle, Sheerin wrote in an email to CBC News earlier in November.
The technology from the project remains part of the new company's inventory, but Sheerin said he could provide no further details pending a legal challenge involving NASA.
The company filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Jan. 2009 over NASA's decision not to award Planetspace a contract to transport cargo the International Space Station after the space agency retires its shuttles in 2011.