Last year, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace ended up just shy of winning $350,000 of NASA's money in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. But over the weekend, the rocketeers under the leadership of video-game programmer John Carmack did everything they needed to do to win the prize - wowing legions of space enthusiasts in the process.
|Armadillo Aerospace's rocket prototype takes off
from its pad Saturday during a test at the Oklahoma
Spaceport. Click on the image to watch the video,
redistributed with permission.
As detailed in Carmack's latest dispatch, Armadillo's rocket-powered hovercraft blasted off, hung in the air for 90 seconds and landed safely at the Oklahoma Spaceport - not just once, but twice. You can watch Armadillo's video record of the flight by clicking on the image at right - or you can opt for the original, large-format video on Armadillo's Web site.
Representatives of the X Prize Foundation and the Federal Aviation Administration were on site to watch the test, and Carmack said the there-and-back-again flight would have been a Level 1 winner if it had taken place during the actual X Prize Cup competition. Unfortunately, the Armadillo team will have to wait until October, when the X Prize Cup returns to New Mexico.
"If it weren't for the X Prize Cup doing the management of the NASA prize, we would have won it last weekend," Carmack wrote. "I understand the reasoning behind tying it to an event to help promote the industry as a whole and provide more opportunities for other teams to catch up with the front runner, but as the front runner, I would rather have the check."
Carmack's report drew a wave of adulation from the aRocket e-mail forum, where rocketeers from all over compare notes. Among those joining in the congratulations was Dave Masten of Masten Space Systems, Carmack's closest competitor in the Lunar Lander Challenge.
"Now how about taking a break," Masten suggested in an e-mail posting addressed to Carmack. "Say, four or five months' worth."
Later, Masten told me by phone that his team is moving ahead with vehicle integration and rocket engine tests. You can watch the video from some recent tests by clicking through the company's Web log.
As we discussed last week, Carmack plans to go after the Lunar Lander Challenge's big $1 million prize with Armadillo's four-engine Pixel design. That means the hover time will have to be extended to 180 seconds, and the landing will have to take place on rougher terrain. A diffferent launch system, designed to be more modular and scalable, would vie for the $350,000 Level 1 prize. Carmack's plan calls for retiring Pixel after the prize is won, and then turning his focus toward a modular system that could eventually get Armadillo into orbit.
In contrast, Masten plans to stick with the basic design being used for the Lunar Lander Challenge. "The vehicle that will fly at the LLC is the same that we would have developed if there had not been a Lunar Lander Challenge," he told me.
Several other teams have signed up for the challenge as well. That means this year's challenge could result in a real rocket race - as opposed to last year's challenge, when Armadillo was the only entrant. Check in with Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News for updates (and catch up on past developments by reviewing Robin Snelson's Lunar Lander Challenge blog).
Of course, the challenge is meant to promote rocket innovation in general, rather than actually producing the real lunar lander for NASA's back-to-the-moon effort. But Lindsey puts forth an interesting idea for a Lunar Lander Challenge offshoot:
"Landing on a long pillar of flame is really cool. As I've mentioned before, I really think someone could make a business by buying one of these vehicles from AA [Armadillo Aerospace] and flying it at air shows and state fairs. As experience grows, for both the operator and the FAA, you could start to do night flights and adding showbiz enhancements such as laser lightshow battles and fireworks."
In an op-ed piece for the Houston Chronicle, space consultant and curmudgeon Mark Whittington goes even further, suggesting that NASA could turn over a part of its own lunar exploration effort to the private sector:
"The way it would work is that a prize - of, say, $50 million - would be awarded to the first group to land an instrument package in a predetermined area of the lunar surface, such as the South Pole, and return data. NASA would define what sort of data it is looking for, but it would be up to the private competitors to determine how to obtain it."
Whittington says "everybody would win" that kind of space race. But in the past, lawmakers have been loath to expand NASA's Centennial Challenge program - perhaps because no one can predict exactly when the money would be paid out, and to whom. Also, the biggest and most capable aerospace companies might not want to play for the stakes being suggested. Over at the Space Politics blog, Jeff Foust says $50 million wouldn't be nearly enough:
"One could argue that any venture mounting such a mission could supplement that money with other income streams, like the commercial sale of imagery or other data, but the efforts of companies like Applied Space Resources, LunaCorp, and TransOrbital have demonstrated how difficult it's been to make the business case for a private lunar mission to close; the additional NASA prize money may not be sufficient to close the gap."
Clark Lindsey's posting on the subject has drawn some similarly thoughtful observations, including feedback from Ken Davidian, NASA's program manager for the Centennial Challenges. Should NASA try for a Lunar Lander Challenge with real lunar landers? Would raising the purse to $100 million do the trick? What do you think? Feel free to add your comments below.
Update for 6 p.m. ET June 5: I've heard back from another Lunar Lander Challenge entrant, Allen Newcomb, who is working on the Lauryad lander prototype. "We're still on track," Newcomb told me in an e-mail. "Things are moving very fast right now as we're just a few days away from our first test engine firing."
You can look forward to further updates on the Lunar Lander Challenge in the days ahead.