Lunar Lander Challenge Ends in Fire, Disappointment
Armadillo Aerospace's entry in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, the MOD, burst into flames shortly after engine ignition during its third and final attempt. Image
Credit: William Faulkner

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, New Mexico – The rocketeers at Armadillo Aerospace, thwarted by engine problems and other mechanical failures, left this year's X Prize Cup empty-handed after their spacecraft burst into flames on ignition Sunday.

Over the two days during a Holloman Air and Space Expo, attempts at snaring the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge's $350,000 purse with their design were fraught with technical snags. At one point on Saturday, they were within seconds of winning the money – only to have the multi-legged vehicle self-abort and tip over on landing.

An attempt on Sunday to hop from launch and landing pads ended with the MOD craft bursting in flames shortly after engine ignition.

Armadillo Aerospace is led by computer gaming guru, John Carmack. This is the team's second attempt at the challenge in New Mexico, they were the only entrant in last year's event, which they also lost.

?From the field, we heard a little bit of a boom and there was a hard start on the engine of some type,? said Peter Diamandis, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the X Prize Foundation. A pre-scripted scenario of dealing with the failure was put into action.

Bad day

Pete Worden, a Lunar Lander Challenge judge – and director of NASA?s Ames Research Center, told that the engine blew up, with the rocket?s engine chamber tossing out pieces onto the pad.

?It?s over for them for this X Prize Cup,? Worden said. But he added: ?I do think they are getting there?it?s a robust design. I think they?ll make it. Once again, it proves that rocket science is hard.?

?Number one is not to have any injuries or fatalities when you?re dealing with rockets. So from a safety perspective, everything went by the books,? said Brett Alexander, Executive Director of Space Prizes and the X Prize Cup.

Alexander relayed a comment from John Carmack, leader of the Armadillo team: ?Today is officially a bad day when it comes to our vehicle.?

Carmack was not immediately available for direct comment, but Alexander relayed that the Armadillo head rocketeer has selected not to attempt another flight late tonight. ?He made the call not to do that?he?s elected not to go forward.?

The last attempt to win the $350,000 Level 1 prize on Sunday ended when the MOD vehicle had an engine fire, with pieces coming off, including disconnected cabling. Clearly, there was a fire on the pad that burned for a while – but then went out. The Armadillo team called a safety emergency, requesting fire truck assistance, Alexander said.

Still on the table: $2 million

Over the two days of rocket shots, Carmack and his team had six flight attempts, two very successful flights, a third one that burned for 83 seconds even with a crack in its combustion chamber.

Level 1 requires a rocket to take off from a designated launch area, rocket up to 150 feet (50 meters) altitude, and then hover for 90 seconds while landing precisely on a landing pad nearly 330 feet (100 meters) away. The flight must then be repeated in reverse - and both flights, along with all of the necessary preparation for each, must take place within a two and a half hour period.

The more difficult Level 2 requires the rocket to hover for twice as long before landing precisely on a simulated lunar surface, packed with craters and boulders to mimic actual lunar terrain. The hover times are calculated so that the Level 2 mission closely simulates the power needed to perform a real lunar mission.

?I would expect that next year there will be more than one team competing, but I don?t know. I do know now that all $2 million is still on the table. So there?s an incentive for those that are still pushing?and an incentive for us to hold the Cup and have a great event,? Alexander explained at a post-Lunar Lander Challenge press briefing.