LASCRUCES, NM - Private rocketry took another big step here thanks to thepersistence and space spunk of Armadillo Aerospace. After years of dedicatedwork, the team of rocketeers snagged a large chunk of prize money in theNorthrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.
TheChallenge is a two-level, $2 million competition designed to acceleratecommercial space technology as part of NASA?s Centennial Challenges program.
Vehiclesbuilt for the contest mimic lunar landers that exhibit the technologicalwherewithal common to ferrying payloads or humans back and forth between lunarorbit and the lunar surface.
Land of Countdowns
Thethird Northrop Grumman LunarLander Challenge was held here at the Las Cruces International Airport onOctober 24-25 - and once again, the Land of Enchantment was turned into theLand of Countdowns.
Ledby John Carmack, a 3D graphics pioneer and video game developer, ArmadilloAerospace of Mesquite, Texas had long sought Challenge money.
In2006, Armadillo?s ?Pixel? was the only craft to fly at the X Prize Cup, alsoheld here, and narrowly missed making a Level One win, but failed to do so dueto broken landing gear. A year later, the team missedthe prize by seven seconds.
Thisyear?s win had the Armadillo team successfully fly their vehicle to a height ofsome 160 feet (50 meters), then sky-scoot itself over to a distant landing pad,land safely after a minimum of 90 seconds of in-the-air time? and then repeatthe flight.
TheArmadillo team had earned $350,000 in prize money.
Aschampagne corks flew, Carmack was clearly elated: ?All right! After three yearsof trying at this we know we can do this?it?s just having the circumstanceswork out right for us.?
Thisyear, Armadillo faced its first head-to-head competitor. Also eying Level 1prize money was TrueZer0 of Chicago, Illinois.
But shortly after liftoff, their vehicle ran into trouble. Theflight was aborted with the craft - called Ignignokt - nose-diving into scrubbrush and bouncing on its head to a final, but busted-up stop.
?The vehicle is basically a total loss at this point,? said ScottZeeb of TrueZer0 in a post-crash briefing. ?It was really not designed to takeanything like that, obviously.?
TrueZer0 team member, Todd Squires, said the craft began to spinas it reached altitude. ?It started to wobble. I could see what was goingon?the spin was causing it to do that. So I hit the abort key and dropped it tothe ground.?
Zeeb added: ?The motor almost looks okay but the nozzle is alittle bent?so it might make a nice paperweight for my desk.?
While the TrueZer0 group admitted that they had hoped to dobetter, ?we came out here with the understanding that we hadn?t tested a hugeamount. We knew this was a real possibility?and we?re okay with it,? Zeebexplained.
The vehicle was a $10,000 loss. ?I?m going to have a beer and getsome sleep,? Zeeb said.
Cash left on the table
Hoping to snare more NASA Centennial Challenge money, ArmadilloAerospace tried the next day, on October 26, to fly the Level 2 Challenge.
Doing so meant flying a different vehicle geared to tackle a moredifficult task. The rocket needed to fly for 180 seconds then maneuver to aprecise landing atop a crater-pocked and rock-laden look-alike of a lunarlandscape.
Butthe plucky craft failed shortly after ignition, falling on its side.
?Wehad a burn through on the engine which caused it to shut down just as it wasthrottling up,? Carmack later reported. The vehicle suffered other damage aswell, with the Armadillo Aerospace team calling it a day without furtherflights.
?Oncewe really identify the root cause?we will kill the problem dead,? an undauntedCarmack said.
?Wethink it?s something on our electronics drivers,? Carmack told SPACE.com.?When we looked back at older data traces ? we could see signs of this being aproblem before. But it was only like in the last week when we started testingthese for this year that it actually became a problem causing aborts? butnothing is going to fly until we?ve got a fix,? he said.
PeterDiamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, saluted the Armadillowin. The X Prize Foundation manages the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challengefor the NASA Centennial Challenges Program.
?Theincredible legacy of Armadillo is their ability to fly over and over again in alow-cost fashion. They actually build the vehicle, fly it, see what happens,and make the repairs. They can iterate multiple times in a couple of days,?Diamandis told SPACE.com. ?It?s really the garage rocket scientistapproach to low-cost reliable vehicles. I think it?s something that the largercompanies and the government should be learning from.?
Diamandissaid that he hopes the Armadillo win is a stimulus for more teams. ?There?s $1.65million left on the table,? he noted.
Nottoo distant from the Las Cruces International Airport is the still-to-be-builtSpaceport America - slated to be home base for Virgin Galactic and its suborbitalspaceliner operations - an enterprise backed by lofty visionary, RichardBranson.
?NewMexico and Spaceport America are committed to enabling the commercial spaceindustry. The Lunar Lander Challenge is accelerating technology development,?said Steve Landeene, Executive Director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.
?Armadillo?scapture of the $350,000 Level 1 prize marks a significant milestone in the raceto space. No longer will space be relegated to government agencies,? Landeenenoted.
Anew partnership to create a vertical takeoff/landing vehicle for suborbitalpassenger flight was announced during the Challenge, linking up the RocketRacing League, Armadillo Aerospace, and the State - a joint collaboration thatadds to the list of companies who have already committed to do their work in NewMexico and Spaceport America, Landeene pointed out.
?NewMexico and Spaceport America are thrilled to be the place where Armadillo willdevelop their vehicle,? Landeene said. ?The race to space is on for suborbitaltransportation. Two totally different experiences will be provided. What agreat day this is.?
- Video - The 2007 Teams for Lunar Lander Challenge
- Video - 2007 Lunar Lander Challenge Woes
- Future of Flight: Space Tourism, Investment and Technology
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Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.