Rocket Racers take flight
By Jay Wrolstad
Jim Bridenstine, MBA '09 (E), has no qualms about strapping himself into a rocket-powered airplane and being among the first to go head-to-head with other pilots on a racecourse in the sky. He sees the two-year-old Rocket Racing League (RRL), poised for takeoff next year, as an opportunity to put his flying skills to the test – and to provide vicarious thrills to a global audience of would-be flyboys.
Bridenstine, a former Navy jet fighter pilot and a student in the Johnson School Executive MBA program in Palisades, N.Y., is also prepared to accept the risk of turning the league into a money-making venture as a team owner.
"This is the next generation of racing," Bridenstine says. "Instead of racing in an oval on the ground, we will tilt the racetrack vertically and use virtual technology to display the track on a TV screen or a computer." The racecourse gates will be superimposed digitally on such screens; viewers at home will get the same display that is projected on the racing pilot's helmet visor, he explains.
Rocket racing evolved from the X Prize Foundation, which offered a $10 million prize to the first team to put a manned spacecraft into orbit twice in two weeks without governmental aid. That cash was claimed in 2004 by aeronautics innovator Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne.
The Mark-1 Racer used in the league is a Rutan design, made by XCOR Aerospace, Bridenstine says. The fuel is a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene, which produces impressive flames from the exhaust and more noise to grab spectators' attention.
The racecourse is, in essence, a NASCAR oval turned on its side, with the added challenge of more turns and climbs. At the race sites, there will be Jumbotron video screens for the crowd to watch, or people can join the fun, testing their mettle in real-time on a computer.
Pilot strategy will make the racing events more compelling, Bridenstine notes. Each engine has just four minutes of burn time for competitions that will last about 12 minutes. "The engines are either on full-burn or off, so the pilot who makes best use of his fuel will have the best chance of winning. I expect that there will be a lot of exciting, come-from-behind finishes."
Truly a cutting-edge machine, the Mark-1 X-Racer is an aft-wing rocket with a forward canard and vertical stabilizers on each wing rather than a single stabilizer on the tail like a typical jet. It has a top speed of some 300 mph and because the engines don't require oxygen they are capable of eventually operating in suborbital altitudes, Bridenstine explains.
But before the RRL reaches such heights, there is money to be raised. Each rocket costs about $1.25 million, and teams also have substantial operating expenses such as fuel, transportation costs, tools, and crews to maintain the aircraft. Nevertheless, Bridenstine remains optimistic: "With very little promotional effort, I have seen a tremendous level of interest."
Bridenstine decided to pursue his MBA in order to gain the marketing skills necessary to help the racing league attract both corporate sponsors and cities that can purchase naming rights for the individual teams. It's the same marketing strategy that has produced the logos plastered on NASCAR, Indy-style, and Formula One racecars. And, like NASCAR, the RRL should land a lucrative TV contract – all of the major networks have expressed interest, Bridenstine says. The RRL already has gained plenty of attention in the media, ranging from Business Week to Air and Space Magazine to the Discovery Channel.