The shell of the rocket is in pieces around the vintage De Havilland aircraft hangar in Downsview Park. Once a stable for second world war flyers, it now serves as the workshop where what will soon resemble a big red bullet or a 9-metre dildo, depending on how hard you look, will be assembled. At the moment, it resembles a model dumped out of a kit all over the floor.
"Integration is always the last stage of assembly," says Brian Feeney, team leader, designer and soon-to-be pilot of the intrepid little craft.
Wildfire, as it's called, will be painted like a Hot Wheels car, blazoned with the logo of an online casino - no ad, no launch, or, as they famously said in The Right Stuff, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers' - and hoisted 24,400 metres into the sky by a really, really big helium balloon. (Bigger than your house? Actually, bigger than your high-rise complex). Then it will blast off for space with a live person inside - Feeney.
In this project, which doesn't have the word NASA on it anywhere, Sky Captain Feeney is going to head 100 klicks straight up in one suborbital thrust, trusting that the ragtag team of 500 volunteers who built the craft haven't messed up on a screw or a nail. "There is no room for .1 per cent margin of error," he says. Gambling does seem the appropriate metaphor.
If he manages to survive the trip and then do it over again within two weeks, he and his da Vinci Project will receive $10 million and usher in the first civilian space program. Why on earth do we need a people's rocket? To answer that, you have to penetrate the wildly entrepreneurial minds of the folks behind the Ansari X Prize, a group of wealthy philanthropists and corporate donors waiting to reward the first successful grassroots spacecraft.
The X Prize Web site propounds the lofty goals of space travel for everyone: "enhancing the wealth of all nations and people while preserving and repairing the environment of our home planet. We believe that this is our duty to our species and our fellow passengers on spaceship Earth." Then come the less elevated motivators: the commercial potential of space for adventure tourism, speedy commercial travel, same-day package delivery, the sky's the limit (or not).
Watch for an era of goofy firsts to join such halcyon moments as Alan Shepard's lunar golf swing in 1971: the first handball game, first streaking party, first watermelon toss. Making display ads out of the aurora borealis? But will struggling with crass commercialism really be any worse than contending with military interests, the trade-off in nationalized space? Can it possibly be any worse than the ideological hubris of the Cold War space race?
Is this a chance for the human race to embrace the stars, free of bureaucracy and patriotic ballast, or does it mean the exploration of space will go from the grand to the cheesy?
There are more than enough space-crazed scientific wizards with business plans. The da Vinci Project (DVP), one of two Canadian entrants in the worldwide contest, have been at it since 1999. They're planning a launch soon from Kindersley, Saskatchewan (Cape Kindersley, as excited locals have dubbed it), although there has already been one delay.
At the hangar, no one seems to roll in before 10 am, although people are often here late into the evening. Everyone is very friendly, clearly excited to be working on a rocket. This is a crew of mavericks who look like they'd be just as much at home with The Anarchist Cookbook as with rocket diagrams.
The volunteers turn up periodically at the picnic table outside the hangar, and the conversation naturally turns to aviation, rockets, fiction and government cover-ups as they smoke and smoke and smoke. Their seemingly haphazard work schedule looks casual enough, but single shifts can last for days. "Going home," I overhear someone say on his way out. "Getting some sleep. Been here 30 hours."
"There's something to do, you get it done," says Maxx, a volunteer who's made work for himself like finding the balloon wherever it settles to the ground in rural Saskatchewan after launch, or his present task of roasting coffee beans in a toaster oven since he mistakenly bought them raw.
Feeney shows up later in the day, puffing a cigarette, a little swelled around the middle, looking every inch the Everyman astronaut. He disappears into his office to sketch more plans. Word has gone around that they're going to have to clean up the shop by tomorrow, when one of the backers is coming over, and get the seats into the crew capsule so the sponsor can at least see that people go inside.
Feeney is an aerospace specialist who had one of those October Sky kind of childhoods in which he made his own explosives and dreamed of going into space. After decades as a serious grown-up technician, he's spent the past five years realizing his boyhood wish on a grand scale: he'll get to fly his own rocket.
As team leader, he seems to be spread somewhat thin. One day he's in Welland getting fitted for his space suit, then getting insurance for the launch, talking to the media, doing simulation training or quality checks and, of course, meeting with sponsors. You wonder how far one person's focus should be divided in an operation where one loose bolt may be a death warrant.
The name has since been extended to "the GoldenPalace. com Space Program Powered by the da Vinci Project," to include the online casino company that became the leading sponsor as of August. The mind's eye pictures space rockets done up like NASCAR racers with logos for STP, Marlboro, Molson.
GoldenPalace.com proudly announces on its Web site that Feeney will gamble online (whether it'll be roulette or blackjack remains classified) while in flight, earning GoldenPalace.com its new motto, "The first casino in space." One small step for Internet gambling.
DVP has received about $5 million from investors, a modest sum compared to the $25 million sunk into SpaceShipOne, a California-based venture with big money behind it from the start. The DVP team are proud of the fact that they're doing this on what amounts to a shoestring in the aerospace world (the initial estimate for NASA's space shuttle was $5 billion, which was immediately exceeded).
"Breaking the psychological barrier," is what Feeney says he is trying to do. It will essentially be broken when someone like him emerges unharmed from a spacecraft perhaps built in a North Toronto hangar for less than a thousandth the cost of NASA's flagship.
But even those entrants who don't win the race may win the contracts. Already, Feeney has an eight-seater tourist craft in mind. "We have our own ideas for breaking into what I guess you'd call space adventure tourism."
He's convinced that the profound and the silly will come in their measure, but that's OK by him. "Part of our philosophy is about bringing the human experience into space - and making it fun. Ninety-nine per cent of the people who'd want to go into space don't want to go for the science," he says. Then he's got to go. "Any more questions? I've got to blast off."