I am not dead.

There was a huge engine explosion 300 feet away from me, but I survived. More on that later.

I woke up yesterday morning to thunder, lighting, and torrential rains. So I showered and drove 40 minutes to Las Cruces, NM. I met Joe, Luke and Eric at their apartment, and we took Luke’s truck out the Las Cruces airport. The police at the road block let us through after we told them that we were press and Luke showed them his Aggie Sports press pass.

We pulled in, got our gear together, and registered at the press desk. We were guided to the first stop on the press tour, on which we met all the teams and major exhibitors. It was boring.

After breakfast in the press tent, we made our way over to Burt’s hanger. Burt is a friend of Luke who worked with Burt Rutan on SpaceShipOne. He showed us pictures and talked about how much the roof of his hangar leaks and how much airplane instrumentation is worth. I’ll say this: if you’re out jacking car stereos on a Saturday afternoon, you’re wasting time. Get yourself down to the local airport and pick up some avionics for resale.

The show was supposed to begin with skydiving, but that was cancelled due to high winds. The no-show skydiving team was followed by two fly-bys of the F-117 Stealth fighter. Awesome.

Then the EZ Rocket flew. This thing is essentially a super-light glider with a pair of rocket engines. They’re planning a full-on rocket plane racing league in the next couple years. Think NASCAR in the sky. With diamonds.

The daVinci test drop didn’t happen because of the winds. And Buzz Aldrin didn’t show up to read from his children’s book. Maybe because he’s old. And it was windy. I cried and cried.

Armadillo Aerospace was supposed to send up its test rocket three times. Their plan is for vertical takeoff and landing, using the thrust of the rockets to slow themselves down before they land. It seemed to work pretty well. It took off, hovered at about twenty feet, descended, touched down, and fell over. The other two tests were cancelled.

At 3:00 I found Steve Bennett, the tattooed and white-haired Brit who owns Starchaser. I asked if I could go out into the launch area with his engineers for the firing of their rocket engine. Surprisingly, he said yes. I made my way out the engine, 1500 feet away from the crowd for obvious safety reasons. They were filling the tanks with liquid oxygen, or LOX. Bob, another member of the British team, told me that liquid oxygen wants to combust. Really bad. It’s like a hyperactive three year-old with a box of matches and a can of gasoline. And a blowtorch. And pyromaniacal tendencies. So when he asked me to head over to the bunker so that they could pressurize the tanks, I hustled to the mound of dirt a mere 300 feet away.

While we were waiting for the tanks to pressurize, the EZ Rocket flew again. Trust me on this: the Rocket Racing League is gonna be sweet.

Eventually, it came time to light up the engine. The crowd was supposed to see a twenty foot plume of smoke. Instead, there was a loud pop, and explosion, and a raging giant ball of fire sweeping across the desert floor fed by liquid oxygen and a stiff wind. Easily the highlight of my day.

Look for the Flickr feed later this week. For a more detailed account of the X Prize Cup, visit the blog of Michael Belfiore, who blogged the entire event as it was unfolding. He writes for Popular Science, so he’s pretty good. And, like me, he uses a D70, so he’s awesome.

8 Responses to “the x prize cup”

  1. # Blogger Joe Fuel

    Believe me when I say that I'm glad that fireball didn't kill you. I think Aimee would have killed the messenger.

    But, you forgot to say that Dr. Diamantes was totally elated about the Armadillo launch. That, I believe, was the most beautiful of ironies.  

  2. # Blogger Erik

    Wish I could have been out there with you to see that explosion. I know it was spectacular from the Press Tent, and we were all crossing our fingers as we saw LOX spewing out and on fire.  

  3. # Anonymous anne arkham

    Yeah, liquid oxygen is not something you want to piss off.  

  4. # Anonymous confunonymous

    Dr. Deviantes?  

  5. # Blogger r.fuel

    It's Diamandis, actually.  

  6. # Blogger Michael Belfiore

    Hey Robert, congrats on getting up close to the Starchaser engine. I'd asked Carmack if I could get close to the Armadillo rocket launch, and he told me FAA regs forbade it, so I didn't even bother to try asking Bennett if I could get close to his rocket firing. Guess I should have been more persistant!  

  7. # Blogger anaglyph

    Nothing quite so life-affirming as a good close explosion that leaves your ears ringing but your blood-supply still sealed in.  

  8. # Blogger r.fuel

    Thanks, Mike. It was a shot in the dark, and I got lucky. I'm almost ready to post the pictures to Flickr. The shots of the engine ignition and subsequent explosion are awesome.  

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