Lunar Lander Rocket Flies But Fails In Bid For Prize Dollars
Pixel - the Armadillo Aerospace Lunar Lander Challenge competitor, flies high through the sky at the Wirefly X Prize Cup. Craft successfully flew to altitude, hovered, then came down too hard on a landing pad. Damage to Pixel curtailed a reflight today, but fixes overnight may see a return to flight on Saturday. Image
Credit: SPACE.com/William Faulkner

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico -- A little bit of Apollo Moon history was revisited here today. The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge was staged for the first time at the Wirefly X Prize Cup.

The NASA-sponsored Challenge is part of the two-day Cup being held October 20-21 at the Las Cruces International Airport. NASA is providing $2 million in prize money for the Challenge.

The event was founded by the creators the Ansari X Prize, the $10 million prize package offered to anyone who could launch a re-usable sub-orbital spacecraft, capable of carrying passengers, twice in a two week period.

Roaring off into clear skies over a stretch of remote terrain, the Armadillo Aerospace vertical takeoff and landing vehicle rose to altitude, remained aloft, scooted horizontally a distance, but ran into trouble at touch down on a landing pad.

The craft--nicknamed "Pixel"--came down too fast causing breakage of landing legs. Fire damage caused by the hard landing has curtailed the vehicle's second flight - needed to claim NASA prize money. Depending on overnight fixes to software and hardware, another attempt at grabbing Lunar Lander Challenge money may be attempted.

Permit to experiment

John Carmack, lead rocketeer of the Mesquite, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, admitted in a pre-flight interview of being nervous about the team's space shot today. Test flying of their rocket hardware on Thursday was highly successful, but some technical snags cropped up during those early shakeout hops.

For one, Carmack said their vehicle kicked up significant dust making it tough to remotely control the touch down. "I couldn't see a damn thing," he noted, as he piloted the automated craft with a hand-controller.

For Pixel to take to the air today, it had to pass regulatory safety oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. That body granted Armadillo Aerospace an experimental permit to fly, Patricia Smith, Associate Administrator for the office told SPACE.com.

Despite the landing problems, Carmack remained optimistic about the flight.

"I think that the best benefit that NASA can possibly get out of this is an operation like this - going from concept to almost successful flight in under six months by a team of 8 people part time for about $200,000," Carmack said after the flight. "That should change some of their current contractors that are going to be spending tens of billions of dollars doing different things."

On the level

Winning the Level 1 competition was worth $350,000 in prize money - a purse provided by NASA's Centennial Challenges. This NASA effort is meant to promote technical innovation through a novel program of prize contests.

Rocket teams for the Lunar Lander Challenge are scored on their ability to meet challenge requirements, the accuracy of their landing and, in case of a tie, the number of "round trips" they can complete within a specified period of time.

New ideas, like those stimulated by the Lunar Lander Challenge can help return humans to the Moon by 2020, said Art Stephenson, vice president of space exploration systems for Northrop Grumman's Integrated Systems sector.

Armadillo Aerospace had competitors for this year's Lunar Lander Challenge. However, other teams experienced technical as well as financial woes, narrowing down the field to Carmack and his team this year.

Theory and reality

While the pursuit of the Challenge did significantly accelerate the development of Masten Space Systems' commercial XA-1 vehicle, the group had to delay taking part in the contest.

Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing spacecraft are hard, Masten said. "We knew that when we started this business. In the end, it was Murphy that conspired to delay enough key elements that we couldn't meet the X Prize Cup deadline," he said.

"Over the last couple of months we have been working on issues where theory and reality did not quite meet up. We have all those issues just about wrapped up," Masten told SPACE.com.

The group's XA-1 is being readied for flight in the very near future, said Michael Mealling, Vice President of Business Development.