Rocketeers Win $1 Million in Lunar Lander Contest

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. (Image credit: X Prize Foundation)

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

MastenSpace Systems of Mojave, Calif., successfully flew its rocket Xoie (pronouncedZoey) twice within a set time limit to qualify for the top Level 2 prize inthe Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, a NASA-sponsored contest to buildmock lunar landers.

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

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

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

Horserace, with rockets

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

There weretwo levels to the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge and two prizes perlevel to add up to the $2 million total. Level 1 required teams to fly theirvehicles up to 164 feet (50 meters), remain aloft at least 90 seconds and makea round trip between two different launch pads.

Carmack?sArmadillo 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 monthwitha different rocket called Xombie.

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

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

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

"Ican?t say enough good about the Masten team,? Masten said in a statement. ?Theytake my crazy ideas and make them work."

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

Rocketsbuilt by two other California-based teams - Unreasonable Rocket led by afather-son team of Paul Breed, Sr. and Paul Breed, Jr., of Solano Beach andBonNova of Tarzana ? failed to qualify for the challenge.

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

Pomerantzsaid the X Prize Foundation is looking for another potential contest, one thatbridges the gap between the Lunar Lander Challenge and its own Google Lunar XPrize, which is offering up to $30 millionin prizes for the first teams to build and land real moon landers or roverson the lunar surface.

Judges?decision questioned

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

The rulesallow judges to give a team more time to compete if it forfeits a flightattempt before launch time. The decision gave Masten an extra try (ultimatelysuccessful) at Level 2 after two days plagued by glitches and a fire. It alsoallowed Unreasonable Rocket another day to try for the Level 1 award on Sunday.

In astatement to MSNBC last week, Carmack said he understood the decision and feltno ill-will toward Masten Space Systems, but did feel it dealt a critical blowto his team?s chances at $1 million.

"Therules have given the judges the discretion to do just about anything up to andincluding awarding prize money for best effort if they felt it necessary, sothere may not be any grounds to challenge this, but I do feel that we have beenrobbed,? Carmack told MSNBC in an e-mail.

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

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

  • Video - Armadillo?s Mock Moon Lander Success
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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.