Rocketeers Win $1 Million in Lunar Lander Contest
A rocket called Xoie, built by Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif., flies between two launch pads on Oct. 30, 2009 to win the top $1 million prize of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge sponsored by NASA.
Credit: X Prize Foundation

A California-based team of engineers has snagged a $1 million NASA prize by winning a pitched competition to fly homemade rockets on mock moon landing missions.

Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif., successfully flew its rocket Xoie (pronounced Zoey) twice within a set time limit to qualify for the top Level 2 prize in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, a NASA-sponsored contest to build mock lunar landers.

The Masten team beat longtime front-runner Armadillo Aerospace, a Texas-based team led by video game developer John Carmack, with precision flying on Oct. 30 that gave their Xoie vehicle the best landing accuracy of the multi-month competition. An award ceremony is set for Thursday in Washington, D.C.

?This was really the horse race that we were always hoping it would be,? Will Pomerantz, senior director of space prizes for the X Prize Foundation, told ?To come down and be so close, and have so many teams going back to back to back here at the end of the window, I think, has exceeded our expectations in a way that we?re thrilled about.?

The X Prize Foundation, which awarded the $10 million Ansari X Prize for privately-built suborbital manned spacecraft in 2004, has managed the lunar lander competition for NASA since it began in 2006. Northrop Grumman, the company that built NASA?s original moon landers for the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, supported the event.

Horse race, with rockets

The Lunar Lander Challenge is one of NASA?s Centennial Challenges that offer cash prizes for engineering feats. For the Lunar Lander Challenge, NASA offered a total of $2 million in awards for successful flights of vehicles capable of hopping from one launch pad to another.

There were two levels to the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge and two prizes per level to add up to the $2 million total. Level 1 required teams to fly their vehicles up to 164 feet (50 meters), remain aloft at least 90 seconds and make a round trip between two different launch pads.

Carmack?s Armadillo Aerospace won the $350,000 first-place prize for Level 1 in 2008, with the Masten team nabbing the $150,000 second-place purse earlier this month with a different rocket called Xombie.

Level 2 of the contest was trickier, but with a much larger payout. It also required a round trip flight, but extended the flight to 180 seconds (3 minutes) and included a simulated moonscape for added difficulty.

Carmack, founder of the id Software company, and his team qualified for the $1 million prize in September using their Scorpius vehicle, which had an average landing accuracy of about 35 inches (87 cm).

But it was Masten Space Systems, led by engineer David Masten, which won last week after pushing through a communications glitch, a pad fire and a truck stuck in the sand to take home top billing. During an extra day of competition, Masten?s Xoie rocket flew twice with a landing accuracy of about 7 1/2 inches (19 cm).

"I can?t say enough good about the Masten team,? Masten said in a statement. ?They take my crazy ideas and make them work."

With first place for Level 2 in Masten?s hands, Armadillo Aerospace will take home the second place prize of $500,000.

Rockets built by two other California-based teams - Unreasonable Rocket led by a father-son team of Paul Breed, Sr. and Paul Breed, Jr., of Solano Beach and BonNova of Tarzana ? failed to qualify for the challenge.

With all $2 million of NASA?s Lunar Lander Challenge prize money awarded, the competition is effectively over, unless the space agency opts to sponsor another round of competition.

Pomerantz said the X Prize Foundation is looking for another potential contest, one that bridges the gap between the Lunar Lander Challenge and its own Google Lunar X Prize, which is offering up to $30 million in prizes for the first teams to build and land real moon landers or rovers on the lunar surface.

Judges? decision questioned

The competition was not without some controversy. A decision by contest judges to enforce rules that allowed Masten Space Systems an extra third day to try for the Level 2 prize - after the team exhausted its two-day window last week - did cause some consternation among the other teams.

The rules allow judges to give a team more time to compete if it forfeits a flight attempt before launch time. The decision gave Masten an extra try (ultimately successful) at Level 2 after two days plagued by glitches and a fire. It also allowed Unreasonable Rocket another day to try for the Level 1 award on Sunday.

In a statement to MSNBC last week, Carmack said he understood the decision and felt no ill-will toward Masten Space Systems, but did feel it dealt a critical blow to his team?s chances at $1 million.

"The rules have given the judges the discretion to do just about anything up to and including awarding prize money for best effort if they felt it necessary, so there may not be any grounds to challenge this, but I do feel that we have been robbed,? Carmack told MSNBC in an e-mail.

Pomerantz said that judges deliberated ?literally for hours? before deciding to allow Masten a third day of Level 2 competition on Oct. 30. The decision, he added, was then discussed among all Lunar Lander Challenge competitors.

?They did grumble about it a little bit, but they did understand the logic of it,? Pomerantz said.

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