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Lunar lander liftoff

An artist's conception shows the Lauryad Lunar Lander in a Day-Glo desert.

The starting gun is about to go off for this year's lunar lander marathon - an eight-month season that begins with the release of the rules and registration procedures, sometime in the next week or so, and reaches its climax at October's X Prize Cup with the running of the $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

Last year, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace almost won a $350,000 NASA-backed rocket prize in the first-ever Lunar Lander Challenge. This year, competition organizer Will Pomerantz expects about 10 teams - including Armadillo - to enter the vertical-takeoff-and-landing contest. One competitor, Los Angeles-based BonNova, is coming out of stealth mode just today with a fund-raising plan that involves an eBay auction.

BonNova's chief engineer, Allen Newcomb, has played supporting roles in a couple of high-profile space projects already. During his two-year stint at SpaceDev, Newcomb worked on the avionics for the NASA-funded CHIPSat probe and for the hybrid rocket engine used on the privately funded SpaceShipOne rocket plane.

Nowadays Newcomb does engineering jobs on a contract basis - and works on his Lunar Lander Challenge entry as a second full-time job. "I've been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week," he told me today.

The rocket-powered craft is called the Lauryad - which is also the name of a spaceship in a romance/sci-fi novel written by actress Vanna Bonta, called "Flight." Bonta is BonNova's creative consultant (as well as a sometime commentator on sex in space). Newcomb said an engineer-machinist is working with him to build two Lauryads - one for each of the challenge's two competitions - at a machine shop in Napa, Calif.

So far, the project has been getting by on small investments from contributors who have been promised shares of the potential payoff. If the eBay gambit comes through, Newcomb said he'll be able to turn building the Lauryad into "a paid job."

He's offering sponsorship of the project for sale at eBay Motors. Based on my reading of the Web page, the purchaser would get half of any prize money - as well as advertising space on the rocket vehicles, other perks and the Lauryad I itself once all is said and done. Of course, I'm not the authority on the deal - you'll have to take a good look at the fine print.

Armadillo Aerospace, headed by millionaire video-game programmer John Carmack, is considered the favorite for this year's competition. California-based Masten Space Systems, which narrowly missed getting all its paperwork together for last year's contest, is looming as a strong challenger. What makes Newcomb think he can beat out those worthies, as well as the other seasoned competitors who will round out the rocket field? Newcomb pleaded his case in an e-mail:

"... Good engineering and design are required but not sufficient by themselves in a competition. John came close last year with just a few months' prep time before the contest. This year there will be several more competitors with more time, and many will probably complete the course. It's going to take more than that to win. It will take an attitude of competing not just against the course, but against the other competitors as well. Tie breakers include accuracy and speed, not unlike a race.

"This is where I feel I will have a significant advantage over the also-rans. From the very beginning the vehicle and the engineering program are geared toward competition and beating the other players. I have extensive experience in motor racing competition at the national level, both as a crew member on Indy car teams and as a driver of my own racecar at the SCCA National Championship. Preparation and reliability are critical. The Lauryad Lunar Lander is designed like a racecar in that respect, and uses the latest in racing technology, which can be superior to conventional aerospace technology that has languished for over 30 years under the control of NASA."

Newcomb said he's also getting advice from several other rocket experts. One of the engineers on his list, SkyCorp's Dennis Wingo, confirmed that he's been assisting Newcomb. "We'll do anything we can to help Allen," he said.

Wingo said he briefly considered fielding his own entry in the Lunar Lander Challenge, and talked the idea over with another rocket entrepreneur in Alabama, Orion Propulsion's Tim Pickens.

"We looked at this, and to do this right, we'd need about a million bucks," Wingo said. They checked around for sponsors with that kind of cash but couldn't put a deal together, he said.

That may not bode well for Newcomb's shoestring effort, but Wingo said the effort was still worthwhile. "Hope springs eternal," he said.

In any case, this should be a big season for the Lunar Lander Challenge. "Somebody's going to win it this year," Wingo said. "I think Carmack is pretty far along."

In an e-mail, Carmack said Armadillo's plans were progressing, with another test flight taking place just last weekend:

"I don't know when formal registration will take place, but I would guess soon. It took us six months to get our first permit, but AST [the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation] should be able to go somewhat faster for new entrants now. Our recent application for a permit to fly in Oklahoma has gone much faster. We are going to have to pay a significant chunk of money for our own insurance coverage to do test flights, though."

Carmack's references to insurance expenses and regulatory approvals hint at all the hurdles that newcomers to the Lunar Lander Challenge will have to jump over, in addition to mastering the nuts and bolts of rocket science and fund-raising.

But strangely enough, would-be competitors took heart from the fact that Carmack and his Armadillo Aerospace teammates weren't able to win anything last year, the X Prize Foundation's Pomerantz said: "When they didn't win, people saw the window of opportunity open up again."

Newcomb is just one of those people, and there'll likely be other rocketeers who think they can fly through that window to victory. And why not? If an obscure airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh could fly to glory back in 1927, why shouldn't hope still spring eternal 80 years later?

To keep up with the season's twists and turns, check out Robin Snelson's Lunar Lander Challenge blog as well as Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News.