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Cliffhanger at rocket fest

Chris Jonas

Armadillo Aerospace's Mod rocket craft rises from its pad at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., during an attempt to win $350,000 in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

Armadillo Aerospace provided a fresh demonstration of how alluring rocket science is - and how damnably difficult it can be - on the first day of this year's X Prize Cup at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

The alluring part came when the thousands who thronged to the base watched Armadillo's alien-looking "Mod" rocket ship rise into the crisp desert sky on a tongue of flame.

The difficulty was brought home when the Mod tumbled to the ground, missing out on a $350,000 NASA prize by just a few seconds. The prize is one of the goodies up for grabs in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, being run for the second year in a row at the X Prize Cup.

The good news for Armadillo is that the Mod can be overhauled overnight, and that there will be at least two more chances to win NASA's money on Sunday, the second and final day of the X Prize Cup air and rocket expo.

Fuel-line glitch
Even before today's tragic tumble, Armadillo had been struggling with a fuel-line clog - a glitch that bedeviled them in the morning as well as the afternoon. Led by video-game whiz John Carmack, the team tinkered with the fuel system - at one point reportedly using a bent paper clip to clear the blockage.

The problem cropped up again during the final leg of what Carmack hoped would be a prize-winning round trip. The rocket engine was running rough, but Carmack was able to keep the remote-controlled Mod going for 83 seconds into the flight. At that point, the engine gave up the ghost and the Mod fell from its hovering position just a few meters above the launch pad.

Until the very end, the spindly Mod had hit every mark on the checklist for winning the $350,000 Level 1 prize: It lifted off from its starting pad, rose to at least 50 meters in altitude, eased back down and across to another pad 100 meters away and touched down safely, staying in the air for 90 seconds. All Armadillo had to do was to guide the Mod back the way it came - and bring the machine back to its starting gate before time elapsed on a 150-minute window.

If the engine could have kept going for seven more seconds, Armadillo might well have won the money. As Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg pointed out to me, no one would have cared about a rough-running or even a broken engine after a successful touchdown.

But this year's tumble - like Armadillo's tumble at last year's Lunar Lander Challenge - just goes to show why rocket science is the quintessential difficult thing to do, and why space entrepreneurs are notoriously bad at predicting when their snazzy spaceships will be good to go.

Tiffany Trojca / U.S. Air Force

An F-22, F-117, F-15 and F-4 perform the Holloman Legacy Flight during Saturday's
air show and rocket fest at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. The Legacy Flight
showcases the aircraft that have been and will be a part of Holloman's mission.

Airplanes and rockets
The contrast between the world of airplanes and the world of future spaceships was brought home also by this year's blend of private-sector rocketeering and military air-show acrobatics. The space-related launches and exhibits focused on what might be available in a couple of years, while the jet flyovers and parachute drops highlighted years and years of training and aerospace history.

Brig. Gen. David Goldfein, commander of the 49th Fighter Wing here at Holloman, alluded to the unpredictability of aerospace in a catchphrase I heard repeated several times today by our Air Force hosts: "Airplanes and rockets - what could possibly go wrong?"

Airplanes can certainly be dangerous things to have around, but the technology behind them has been so ironed out that we usually don't give a second thought about being around all those thundering jets. Rockets, on the other hand, are often unpredictable as well as dangerous. That's why Armadillo's launches took place so far away from the crowd that the best way to see them was to look up at the Jumbotron display.

On Sunday, we'll be watching the Jumbotron again, to see whether Armadillo can banish the glitches once and for all. If the Mod's morning run succeeds, Armadillo will go after the Lunar Lander Challenge's big $1 million prize with its wide-stance Pixel rocket craft. To hit the jackpot, Pixel would have to hang in the air for 180 seconds going each way, and land on a rougher, moonlike terrain.

Those factors make the Level 2 challenge much tougher than the Level 1 challenge that the Mod had so much trouble with. Carmack rates the chances of Pixel's success at less than even.

Pixel's twin, nicknamed Texel, blew up in August during testing. On the positive side, Pixel itself ran the complete Level 2 course during tests a week later, and Armadillo has had the benefit of several more weeks' worth of fine tuning.

So what could possibly go wrong? Will enough things go right for Armadillo to come away with the biggest single prize ever paid out by NASA? Come back on Sunday to find out how this year's Lunar Lander Challenge cliffhanger ends.

Several of my blogging brethren are slaving away beside me at the X Prize Cup this weekend. Check out the reports from:

Are you blogging too? Feel free to add links to other X Prize Cup reports as comments below.