Thursday, September 10, 2009

Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part Two - Dumitru Popescu Builds His Dream Rocket

To commomorate the 5th anniversary of the winning of the Ansari X PRIZE, every week through October 2, read the inspirational stories of the visionaries and heroes who turned their "crazy ideas" into a reality.

Guest Blogger Dumitru Popescu:

In 2000, I recruited a highly educated and skilled Aerospace team; started a small commercial space organization in a country where that is unprecedented; and dedicated all of my spare time and money to a contest I was sure we would not win. THAT is the power of incentivized competition.

I first heard about the X PRIZE Foundation by pure coincidence. My wife and I were surfing the web in an internet cafe when my search for rocket engines unearthed the Ansari X PRIZE website, which would change my life forever. I learned about the competition to privately launch a rocket into sub-orbit. As someone with a lifelong passion for Aviation and Astronautics, as well as a degree from the Aerospace University in Bucharest, I have always wanted to build civilian rockets, but in Romania this sort of activity is limited to the military. I knew competing in this contest would require a lot of technical expertise. I also knew that securing the funding would be difficult as there are very limited opportunities in the EU for entrepreneurs interested in starting small, commercial space businesses. If we went forward, we would do so with our own wallets.

Despite these hurdles, my wife and I teamed up with University students to create ARCA, a private organization that would eventually build a rocket to compete for the Ansari X PRIZE. From the beginning, my colleagues were skeptical about whether or not we could make ARCA a serious organization, let alone be a serious contender in the X PRIZE competition. Regardless, it was a great opportunity to gain experience and learn about space, so we decided to move forward. My dream to build rockets became a reality.

Early on we did not talk publicly about what we intended to do. We waited until we could leverage the product of our work to increase our credibility. After completing a small pressurized tank, we showed it to various potential sponsors and succeeded in convincing them to donate money and to sponsor our team for a few years. The donations and sponsorship amounts weren't very big, but they enabled us to keep going. After we completed our first rocket, we were ready to share our achievements publicly. The press and our community became excited when they witnessed our engine tests. It was that moment when others began to realize what was possible.

With a half a year remaining in the competition, I attended a meeting with the other teams competing for the Ansari X PRIZE. On that day, I told Burt Rutan, designer of Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne, in the presence of all the competitors, that he would win the competition. This was hard for a lot of people to accept, but I was right. One of my colleagues was in attendance for the first flight of SpaceShipOne, and he carried with him the support of our whole team. We wanted very much for Burt and his team to succeed (my team and I were very concerned when their vehicle began to spin out of control). In the end, Burt and his team claimed the $10 Million Ansari X PRIZE. A lot of teams were disappointed as they found themselves suddenly left without a main objective. We at ARCA decided to keep moving forward.

In 2006, I had the opportunity to speak with Peter Diamandis at the X PRIZE Cup. I expressed my hope to him that the X PRIZE would initiate another space-based competition in which ARCA could compete. By the end of 2007, this hope was realized when I learned about the $30 Million Google Lunar X PRIZE. Once again, I said, "Let's go forward with this competition." I had listened, learned and taken the best from the teams in the Ansari X PRIZE and five years later, I am armed with that knowledge and ready for a new competition...a competition with larger ambitions. This time our sights are set on the Moon. And when the time comes for us to launch our space probe to the Moon, I will decorate that probe with a picture that was taken in Los Angeles of myself and the other Ansari space pioneers back in 2004. And after the probe lands on the Moon, I plan to call each one of them to say that, "Your picture is on the Moon and it's looking at you!" Then we will laugh together just as in the days of the Ansari X PRIZE Competition.

 Next week we will hear from Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, the personal space tourism company now licensing the Ansari X PRIZE winning SpaceShipOne design and technology.  Other guest bloggers in this series include Anousheh Ansari, Ansari X PRIZE title sponsor and Brian Binnie, the astronaut who flew in the Ansari X PRIZE winning flight.

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