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Student teams competing to design first commercial spaceship will face off at MIT on May 9

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. --A competition to launch commercial space travel will pit four university teams against each other in a "flight to the finish" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Saturday, May 9.

As the United States gears up for space tourism, MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics will host the first X-Prize University Design Competition to design spaceships that will launch ordinary citizens into space.

Student teams from the United States and Canada will present their final designs to a panel of six judges on Saturday. The winning team, to be announced that evening, will receive $5,000 and a chance to pursue the X-Prize itself.

This student competition is sponsored by the X-Prize Foundation, which in 1996 offered a $10 million award to the first private team to build and fly a spaceship capable of launching three adults to a sub-orbital altitude of 100 kilometers (about 60 miles), landing safely and re-flying to 100 kilometers within two weeks. So far, 15 teams have registered to compete.

The X-Prize is expected to do for space travel what Charles Lindbergh's historic 1927 flight across the Atlantic (for the $25,000 Orteig Prize) did for air travel.

The university teams competing this weekend are from MIT, Georgia Institute of Technology, Ryerson Polytechnic University in Canada, and Parks College of Aviation at the University of St. Louis.

On Friday, May 8, students will attend a reception at the Boston Museum of Science featuring Bill Dana, NASA's premier experimental test pilot, who flew the famed X-15 research airplane, the triple sonic YF-12 research aircraft and the Advanced Fighter Technology Integration/F-16 aircraft. Dana will show video footage of "some of the most exciting test aircraft flights" from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

The university version of the contest was developed "to stimulate students to think about human space flight, space tourism and innovative system designs," according to the X-Prize Foundation.

Inspiring the student competition, Professor Edward Crawley, head of MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, challenged colleges and universities to join the competition. "It's giving students a chance to be a part of history," he said.

"It's an excellent design project because it is a challenging design regime for both aeronautics and astronautics, it involves humans in the system so it's exciting on a personal level, and the actual [X-Prize] Competition is expected to take place during the next three to five years, making this relevant and interesting," Professor Crawley said.

Judges will be Dr. James Burke of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Dr. Renso Caporali of Raytheon Corp.; Mr. Douglas Comstock of Futron Corp.; Professor Jay Light of Harvard Business School; Mr. John Mankins of NASA's Office of Space Flight; and Professor Lawrence Roberts of Seton Hall University.

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