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The glitch that broke the rocket

Armadillo Aerospace missed winning $350,000 of NASA's money in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge this afternoon, most likely because of the same fuel-line problem that cropped up in the morning, according to one of the Armadillo team's members.

In the morning, Armadillo's first attempt to launch its spindly Module 1 rocket craft was spoiled because there was "some crap" in a fuel line, blocking the flow of ethanol, said Armadillo's Neil Milburn.

The team called off that launch attempt to clear the line, and tried again in the afternoon. The "Mod" made a virtually perfect flight from its starting pad to another pad 100 meters away. But while the craft was being prepared for the required return trip, engineers found that the line was clogged again - and took on another cleaning job.

They thought the job did the trick, but Milburn said "it obviously wasn't perfect."

During the return hop, the Mod went through the flight plan that was laid out for it - rising to the required height of 50 meters, moving back over to the starting pad, then hanging just a few meters over the pad to run out the 90-second clock. The Mod itself was obscured by the dust its rocket blast kicked up.

At the 83-second mark, something went wrong.

"It moved over, dust kicked up, you couldn't see anything - and whoa!" said Joseph Boyle, the space boss for the Lunar Lander Challenge.

When the dust settled, the Mod was lying on its side.

Boyle said the craft had been swaying from side to side just before the crash landing. Milburn explained that the fuel line must have been obstructed, and the liquid oxygen burned too hot. That ruined the engine, he said.

"We had a cracked chamber," Milburn told me.

All is not lost for Armadillo, however. The team plans to replace the engine and make other repairs overnight, then go again for the $350,000 with the Mod in the morning, Milburn said.

The $1 million prize for a longer, potentially rockier flight is still out there as well, and there's still a chance that Milburn, team leader John Carmack and the rest of the Armadillo crew would try snaring that purse with the other lunar lander prototype they brought to Holloman for the X Prize Cup.