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Rocket quest crashes and burns

Chris Jonas

Armadillo Aerospace's Mod lunar lander prototype
goes up in flames Sunday during a final launch attempt at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. This
photograph was taken from almost a mile away.

Armadillo Aerospace's yearlong quest to win a NASA-backed prize ended today in a blaze - not exactly a blaze of glory, but a fire that caught the attention of the thousands attending the X Prize Cup air and rocket show here at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

The blast marked the second year in a row that the Texas-based Armadillo team and its popular leader, millionaire video-game programmer John Carmack, fell just short of snaring $350,000 of NASA's money in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

No injuries were reported, and Brett Alexander, the X Prize Foundation's executive director for space prizes, said Armadillo's spindly Mod rocket craft did not appear to be totally destroyed. Nevertheless, the fiery end came as a deep disappointment to the Armadillo rocketeers, who thought they were virtually assured of winning something at this year's X Prize Cup.

"Today is officially a bad day," Alexander quoted Carmack as saying.

The Lunar Lander Challenge, which is backed by a total of $2 million in potential prizes from NASA's Centennial Challenges program, is aimed at encouraging innovations that could lead to more efficient landers for exploring the moon and other planets. By that measure, this weekend's event was a success, Alexander argued, because of the money spent by Armadillo and its competitors to develop new rocket technologies.

"It's many, many times the $2 million already, and they [NASA officials] haven't spent a dime," he said.

The challenge calls for rocket-powered craft to lift off from one launch pad, rise to a height of at least 50 meters, move over to another pad 100 meters away, land and refuel, then retrace its steps back to the beginning - all in 150 minutes or less. The Level 1 challenge requires 90 seconds of rocket-powered hang time, and offers a $350,000 top prize. The Level 2 challenge raises the bar to 180 seconds of flight, with a landing on a rugged, moonlike surface.

Seven seconds away from victory
Nine teams signed up for the challenge this year, but Armadillo was the only one to have its vehicle ready for the contest. In fact, Armadillo had two vehicles registered - the Mod (short for modular rocket) for Level 1 and another rocket craft called Pixel for Level 2.

Armadillo got to fly only the Mod this weekend. The team made four attempts to win the prize over the past two days: The first launch was aborted before it started, due to concerns about a balky ignitor. During the second and third tries, the Mod rocket made the first leg of its required round trip successfully, but was not able to complete the return trip. In both cases, the engine suffered a "hard start" and was fatally damaged during flight.

Carmack came the closest to victory during attempt No. 2, when he kept flying the vehicle by remote control despite the engine damage. The Mod was within seven seconds of satisfying the 90-second flight requirement, but the engine gave out and the craft fell to the ground.

The fiery end
For the fourth and final attempt, Armadillo team members cannibalized the rocket engine from Pixel, installed it on the Mod and revised their procedures in hopes of avoiding engine damage. The plan was take more time to flush out the fuel lines and engine chamber at the halfway point. But Armadillo never got that far.

Just seconds after the countdown ticked down to zero, the area around the Mod erupted in flames. "On ignition, they obviously had an explosion or something in the engine," Alexander said.

"The engine blew up. We had a hard start. ... It actually tore the engine loose," Armadillo team member Russ Blink told me later.

The Armadillo team evacuated the scene and declared an emergency. However, the blaze burned itself out within minutes - even before the fire crews arrived, Alexander said.

Blink said the team was still tracking down the root cause of the hard start. "There's some little gremlin that got us, and we need to get it out," he said. It could be a combination of factors: Some rocketeers suggested that the atmospheric conditions in New Mexico, which is arguably drier and dustier than Texas, might play a role.

"This weekend, we've had more problems that we've had in the last six months. We know what went wrong, but not why," Neil Milburn, Armadillo's vice president, said in a statement from the X Prize Foundation

Alexander said Carmack and the Armadillo team could have installed a spare engine on Pixel and made an attempt Sunday night to win the Lunar Lander Challenge's $1 million prize. "John elected not to go," Alexander said.

Blink said team members decided against another attempt in part because they feared the same engine problem might just crop up again.

There's always next year
The $2 million in prizes will roll over to next year, Alexander said. That would give new hope to other rocketeers, who widely expected Armadillo to walk away with at least one prize this year.

"I would expect that next year there will be more than one team competing," Alexander said. He noted that two or three of Armadillo's rivals "got very close" to being ready to launch this year.

Although the NASA money is still waiting from them, the other entrants in the Lunar Lander Challenge took no joy from Armadillo's loss.

"It's painful, even for us other competitors, to see that," said Dave Masten, president and chief executive officer of California-based Masten Space Systems.

Paul T. Breed, the senior partner in the father-and-son team at Unreasonable Rocket, was distraught when launch commentators asked him to react to the Mod's fiery end. "I know how hard they worked," he said.

Paul A. Breed, the 20-year-old junior partner, said Armadillo "definitely deserved to win." As he reflected on the day's events, the younger Breed referred to Murphy's Law - the observation that if anything can go wrong, it will.

"Things go wrong," Breed said. "Murphy loves rockets."

Other tidbits from the X Prize Cup:

  • The X Prize organizers joined forces with Holloman Air Force Base this year to produce a show that was, if anything, dominated by military aerial displays rather than rocket demonstrations. The precision aerobatics, ear-shattering flyovers and choreographed parachute maneuvers were clearly the biggest crowd-pleasers - and at times the effect reminded me of a show put on jointly by the math club and the varsity football team. But the turnout appeared to please both sides: This weekend's attendance amounted to 85,000, including 6,000 students who came out for Friday's education day, said Brig. Gen. David Goldfein, commander of the 45th Fighter Wing at Holloman. Representatives of the air base as well as the X Prize Foundation said they'd be interested in putting on the same sort of event next year.

  • The sponsorships for next year's event will likely have a different look, however: Alexander noted that that Wirefly, the telecommunications company that had been the cup's title sponsor, was enmeshed in financial difficulties and did not end up contributing to the event. Northrop Grumman's agreement to sponsor the Lunar Lander Challenge runs out this year - and it remains to be seen whether that sponsorship will continue. The challenge itself, however, will be offered through 2010 under the terms of NASA's Centennial Challenges program.

  • The Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Award, named after the late Apollo 12 astronaut, recognizes concepts devised by high-school students to accelerate the personal spaceflight industry. This year's first-place winner was Michael & Talia of Los Angeles, a team that proposed a concept for sunglasses that can monitor vital signs in space. Those team members received a $5,000 grant from NASA and a spaceship trophy by artist/aviator Erik Lindbergh. Second place (and a $2,500 NASA grant) went to GADastro of Northbrook, Ill., which conceptualized a self-healing material to maintain safety in space. Third place (and a $1,500 NASA grant) was given to PenguinED of Friendswood, Texas, which conceptualized a company to work with schools on space education.

Last updated at 7:20 a.m. ET Oct. 29