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How to Race Rockets

ROCKET SCIENCE: As a medical student, Peter Diamandis would haul a brick-sized cell phone on patient rounds so he could monitor NASA’s test firings of rockets.<br/><br/>Photo by Gregg Segal The sky has always fueled my dreams—and led me to launch more than a dozen spaceflight companies. The Rocket Racing League, my latest venture, will debut with demonstration races in 2011. Starting its engines has taught me a few lessons about racing at rocket speed.

Let boredom inspire you.

I got the idea for the Rocket Racing League several years ago while racing an Indy car. After a few laps, I realized I was bored. Racing on an earthbound track, grounded by gravity, just didn’t thrill me. It would be so much more fun, I thought, if the track could be three-dimensional. If the vehicles resembled the pod racers from Star Wars, we could bullet into the sky or swoop down through hoops. The idea stuck with me, and I teamed up with racecar experts to start the league. It’s since been christened “NASCAR with rockets.”

Start with one foot on the ground.

Working with top avionics companies that design fighter jets, we’ve developed a rocket-powered vehicle that’s fueled by liquid oxygen and ethanol. Now we’re adding a three-dimensional virtual racetrack so pilots can zoom through rings and gateways.

Tap your inner child.

My passion for space flight started midway through the Apollo program, when I was nine. With the Rocket Racing League, we’ve tried to recapture that sense of awe by aiming to inspire people in the cockpit and on the ground. Spectators can play along—and even compete with the pilots—by viewing the pilots’ superimposed three-dimensional racecourse from the stands or at home through their television sets or computers.

Be built for speed.

Rocket racers include some of the best acrobatic, military, and test pilots in the world. Some are racecar drivers who also fly. I’m a pilot, and I will absolutely race.

Accept a virtual reality.

Races will take place on a racecourse two miles long, one mile wide, and 1,500 feet in the air. A typical race will take about an hour; fans will be able to watch from multiple camera views, including the cockpit. When pilots miss a ring or gateway on the three-dimensional racetrack, the resulting explosions will be virtual. Their rockets will be real, however, so each racer will follow a separate track to avoid collisions.

Forget Star Trek.

In designing the races, we’ve been careful to avoid engineering inaccuracies. My favorite Star Trek blunder? That swooshing sound the Enterprise makes when accelerating through deep space.

Peter Diamandis ’87 is cofounder and chairman of the Rocket Racing League; chief executive officer of the X PRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit that conducts technological competitions; cofounder and director of Space Adventures, which brokers the flight of paying citizens into orbit; and chief executive officer of Zero Gravity Corporation, which offers weightless flights.

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