LISSIE, Texas - On a rice farm west of Houston, in a pasture littered with cow droppings, Jim Akkerman is immersed in the work of the future.
Flanked by industrial gas tanks and wearing a straw hat, he rummages through his 1978 Ford Club Wagon van for pliers as a crop-dusting plane drones overhead. The retired NASA engineer pays it no mind. He's too busy connecting copper tubing to the 27-foot propulsion system of his homemade spaceship.
That's right, spaceship.
Amid the dusty plains, the inventor, hands stained with oil, is preparing to test the system of Mayflower, a 35-foot winged rocket that he believes will revolutionize space flight.
Never mind the cattle grazing in the shadow of his handiwork. Akkerman's Advent Launch Services is one of 24 competitors for the X Prize, a $10 million award to the first privately funded venture to travel to the edge of space and back. To win, a team must launch a manned, three-passenger vehicle to an altitude of 62.5 miles and repeat the trip within two weeks.
"This is a ma-and-pa operation," Akkerman's wife, Pat, says on this sweltering spring afternoon. She and her husband, both 66, are turning cable-rigged hand cranks to raise the steel propulsion unit onto a test stand - all 2,500 pounds of it.
Wiping sweat from her brow, she quips: "A grandma-and-grandpa operation."
With the recent troubles hampering the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space shuttle program, it might seem unrealistic to expect much from such amateur ventures.
But if a successful X Prize vehicle were available today, it could facilitate research, bolster national security and help create a potentially lucrative space tourism industry, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Sponsored by the X Prize Foundation in St. Louis, the contest aims to accelerate the development of low-cost spaceships for travel and commerce.
Another space race
The competition was announced in 1996, and its jackpot is secured through next year. By then, X Prize officials say, they expect to have a winner. The money was raised through private donations.
The award - which is vying for a place among the aviation prizes of the early 20th century that propelled major advances in speed, distance and technology - has sparked a space quest akin to the great race for flight in the early 1900s that drew in European and American inventors, including bicycle mechanics Orville and Wilbur Wright of Dayton, Ohio.
A century later, garage rocket scientists across four continents heed the call, joined by notables such as missile pioneer Robert C. Truax and aircraft designer Burt Rutan. At its current pace, X Prize officials say, the award could be won by December, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Wrights' Kitty Hawk flight.
Ultimately, the prize aims to do for spaceships what the Orteig Prize did for airplanes.
In 1919, hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris - a prize won in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh aboard his Spirit of St. Louis.
What followed was the "Lindbergh boom": Aviation stocks skyrocketed as did public interest in commercial air travel.
The X Prize seeks a 21st-century repeat. It's betting that the $10 million carrot it's dangling in front of "astropreneurs" is enough to spawn the development of licensed, low-cost, reliable space vehicles.
About 15,000 people a year would pay $100,000 for a 15-minute suborbital trip by 2021, according to a study by the consulting business Futron Corp. in Bethesda. Fifty-four people would pay $20 million for a two-week trip aboard a space station, the report found.
The projections are based on a Futron-commissioned survey of 450 affluent Americans - those who earn at least $250,000 annually or have a net worth of $1 million - conducted last year by Zogby International, a public opinion research group.
"It's a substantial market that can be garnered by the companies coming out of the [competition]," says X Prize creator Peter H. Diamandis, 42. "The biggest problem with space flight is there isn't enough of it."
Diamandis, a co-founder of Space Adventures Ltd., the Arlington, Va., company that helped launch the world's first space tourist, Dennis Tito, turns to history to explain.
On May 20, 1927, the day Lindbergh's plane took off from New York, the young Boeing Corp. rolled out the Boeing 40-A, a simple plane used primarily to carry mail. By 1933, after thousands of flights and incremental improvements, that plane evolved into the Boeing 247, the first modern passenger airliner.
Conclusion: The same must be done with space vehicles. Hundreds or thousands of manned flights a year could lead to low-cost suborbital travel for the masses, not just for high-rollers, Diamandis contends.
"What we're doing has an element of very serious danger, but it's a risk worth taking," he says. "We're talking about opening up a new frontier for humanity. The greatest wealth and greatest knowledge will come from this."
Not everyone shares Diamandis' enthusiasm. Unlike airline travel with its many commercial uses, private space programs aren't likely to spawn a mass market, skeptics say.
"If we're trying to look at an industry where people are really going to make some money out of sending people to space, that's a long way off," says Henry Hertzfeld, senior research scientist at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.
"In any business venture, one serious accident, and you're going to have some problems in the business plan."
But Diamandis might be on to something.
A report last year by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Space Commercialization found that X Prize vehicles could simulate the release of warheads in national defense tests, aid astronomical and high-altitude research missions that are too high for balloons and too low for orbiting telescopes or satellites, and launch experiments for researchers to study the effects of gravity - or lack thereof - on solids, liquids and gases for the development of pharmaceuticals.
Future "emerging markets," the report outlined, include military surveillance, Earth imagery, same-day package delivery, high-speed intercontinental passenger travel, low-cost satellite launching and space tourism.
Unique only begins to describe some of the proposed X Prize spacecraft.
They're pod-like. Cone-shaped. Bullet beauties.
They launch from water. From planes. From ships at sea.
They are named Wild Fire, Aurora, Cosmos Mariner. One is a flying saucer christened The Space Tourist.
Engineer Burt Rutan, designer of several landmark aircraft over his 38-year career, is the X Prize front-runner. After two years of secret development at his Mojave, Calif.-based company, Scaled Composites, he unveiled a fully built vehicle and launch system in April.
Geoff Sheerin, leader of the Canadian Arrow team in London, Ontario, is impressed by Rutan's entry but says his team is going to "whip" its rival.
If Sheerin, who is 40, seems overly confident, it's because he has been training for the X Prize since he was 14. It was then that the industrial designer first dreamed of barnstorming in space.
The fantasy captivated the young Sheerin as he devoured books about space hardware in the late 1970s and discovered discarded rocket designs such as the V-2 and Redstone pioneered by German engineer Wernher von Braun.
So the Niagara Falls teen-ager, who had always been fascinated by science, spent countless hours in the local library researching what it would take to get into the space business.
But when his guidance counselor asked him about his career goals, Sheerin lied for fear of being called crazy.
How could a Canadian teen-ager tell anyone that he would like to build rockets and launch people into orbit when it seemed the sole realm of governments? Space cadet indeed.
So he kept his vision to himself, telling only close friends and family. When he did talk about it, he couldn't stop.
It's an anxiousness Sheerin displayed as a child growing up in Scotland. His father, Tom Sheerin, fed his son's interest in all things scientific with NASA news materials he often brought home from his job as an editor at the Scottish Daily Mail.
His father's diary recalls Sheerin running home from school to watch the early American moon missions, only to find disappointment.
"Dad, how come they're not landing on the moon?" a young Sheerin once asked.
"It's just practice, son," his father reassured him.
Sheerin eventually became an industrial designer and all but put his dream on the shelf. Then in 1998, while thumbing through a trade magazine, he read a blurb about the X Prize.
Immediately, he rushed to a computer, downloaded the competition rules and dusted off his childhood dream.
By 2000, he had assembled a team of 17 volunteer engineers, technicians and support staff, raised money from dozens of corporations and produced blueprints for the V-2 engine.
Last year, the team successfully tested one of the engine's 18 burner cups, proving it could be operated to full thrust. It was a big step, considering not a one has expertise in rocketry.
Man with a vision
Sheerin can now dream out loud. And when he does, he becomes transformed by passion.
His eyes sparkle with excitement. His lips fill with promise. He talks so fast that his ideas seem to get ahead of his tongue. He becomes a study in vision.
At the moment, Sheerin is sitting at a desk on the second floor of an industrial park near London International Airport in the office of Canadian Arrow, explaining how he hopes to make Canada the space shuttle capital of the world for tourists.
"Canadian Arrow's motto: 'Making SPACE for you.' We're very serious about that," he says. "Suborbital [flight] is the first step, but it's the key step. If we don't get that to make money, forget everything else."
The engine of his money-making endeavor is being fine-tuned near a quarry bounded by a soybean field about a half-hour drive north of London.
There, in the center of a 50-foot test stand enclosed on three sides by thick concrete walls, is the 6-foot V-2 engine, silver tubes sprouting from its body like tentacles. With more than 2.5 million Canadian dollars spent on the project, Sheerin hopes the engine will launch a profitable industry.
Back in Texas, James Akkerman envisions a humanitarian use for his craft, Mayflower.
The devout Christian holds a deep conviction that technology should be used in all possible ways to alleviate the suffering of the have-nots.
Why not, he says, use a low-cost alternative to the space shuttle to place solar power plants in orbit, where they would convert sunlight to electricity and beam the power back to receiving stations on Earth to aid developing nations?
"When you look around the world and see what pitiful conditions the bulk of people in this world are living in, it just makes you want to cry," Akkerman says.
"If we can get energy down to 2 cents per kilowatt hour and distribute it anywhere we want to, we can set up factories in whatever town we want."
But that's only the beginning, the Houston native says. He also wants to harness solar power to desalinate ocean water in regions where fresh water is scarce and eventually use Mayflower ships to haul down the more than 8,000 pieces of "space junk" that circle the globe.
"I'm an engineer. I don't like to hear about problems that don't have solutions. And I won't fuss about something until I've got some way of fixing it," he says.
Akkerman's thick, callused hands are testament to the labors of his constant tinkering. In fact, to be certain his wedding band wouldn't fall victim to his toil, like many a wristwatch, his wife had it molded from the most indestructible metal she could think of: titanium.
Detour to engineering
He has been this way all his life. When he was 13, he built his first car - a Ford Model A - from junkyard parts. He drove it back and forth between Houston and Austin during his college years at the University of Texas, where he planned to study medicine.
But all that changed in the fall of 1955 on his way to register for pre-med classes. Taking a shortcut through the engineering building, he came upon a Ford engine undergoing testing in a lab. He stopped, absorbing every detail.
It dawned on him that anyone fascinated by all things mechanical need not become a doctor. On reaching the registration desk, he signed up for courses in mechanical engineering.
As the U.S. space program began in the mid-1950s, Akkerman became enthralled by the possibilities of space flight. After graduation, he worked for an aerospace company, then joined NASA in 1962.
Near the tail end of his 36-year career, Akkerman was intrigued with the idea of a low-cost suborbital vehicle. But, he says, NASA officials didn't seem interested.
In 1996, he met with X Prize officials and realized that the development of suborbital vehicles was not going to happen with a government institution involved. Akkerman then pooled thousands of dollars of his savings, assembled a team of 11, mostly NASA retirees, and registered for the X Prize.
"All the good things that have been done in this world have been done by small groups of people with a vision for potential. And you can go all the way back to Ford and his automobile or Edison and his light bulb or the Wright brothers and their airplane," he says.
Project hits setback
Two weeks after he prepped his Mayflower propulsion system for testing on that scorching day in May, Akkerman met with disaster.
As a yellow-and-orange plume of exhaust hissed from its tail, the heat caused a nearby copper tube to rupture and hose down the pasture - cow droppings and all - with liquid oxygen.
The result was a small fire that deformed the engine nozzle and damaged the suspension system. He hauled the propulsion unit back to a Houston welding shop for disassembly and repairs.
In an e-mail to nearly 100 project supporters, Akkerman explained that the test was somewhat successful. He was able to gather data on how to adjust the fuel-to-oxygen ratio for efficient thrust.
"We have one [more] bit of valuable data. Cow pies in the area burned long after everything else was extinguished," Akkerman wrote. "Continuing to look forward and up."