Nov. 3, 2009 at 12:30 AM ET
California-based Masten Space Systems' Xoie rocket prototype has won a million-dollar prize from NASA, edging out its closest competitor by just a couple of feet.
NASA announced today that the Masten team's "try, try again" effort at California's Mojave Air and Space Port won the top prize in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge's Level 2 contest. The Xoie rocket's final flight on Friday was good enough to best Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, which qualified for the prize with its Scorpius rocket in September.
NASA said Armadillo would receive the Level 2 contest's $500,000 second prize.
A different flight by a different rocket, known as Xombie, earned Masten the $150,000 second-place prize in the Lunar Lander Challenge's less ambitious Level 1 contest. Armadillo won the $350,000 top prize in Level 1 last year.
Armadillo and Masten will be awarded a total of $1.65 million at a Washington ceremony on Thursday, NASA said. The ceremony will close out the three-year-old, $2 million Lunar Lander Challenge program.
The program, one of NASA's Centennial Challenges, was aimed at encouraging the development of new rocket technologies that could potentially be used in future spacecraft. The kind of power required to win the contest would also be enough for a lunar landing and ascent. But the current contestants don't expect to provide NASA with honest-to-goodness lunar landers anytime soon. Rather, they see the prize as an extra incentive to build vehicles capable of taking up suborbital space tourists, or putting small payloads into orbit.
"The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge has had its intended impact, with impressive performances by multiple teams representing a new generation of aerospace entrepreneurs," Andrew Petro, NASA's Centennial Challenge program manager, said in today's announcement. "These companies have demonstrated reusable vehicles with rapid turnaround and a surprising degree of precision in flight, and they have done all this at a much lower cost than many thought possible."
NASA put up the prize money for the Level 1 and Level 2 contests, but the competition was managed by the X Prize Foundation with commercial sponsorship from Northrop Grumman, the corporate heir of the company that built the Apollo lunar module. The contests were modeled after the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition for private-sector spaceflight. The X Prize Foundation claims that rocketeers invested the equivalent of $20 million to go after the $2 million in Lunar Lander Challenge prize money.
"This space race was exciting to watch and experience, as these dedicated teams raced to advance space technology," Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation, said today in a news release.
The contest reached its climax on Friday, when Masten's Xoie rocket made its million-dollar flight. "The drama has just been unbelievable," Stuart Witt, general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port, told me when it was over.
The rules for the Lunar Lander Challenge's Level 2 contest required rocketeers to guide their remote-controlled craft through a complete round trip between one launch pad and a different boulder-strewn pad more than 50 meters (164 feet) away. Each leg of the flight had to last at least 180 seconds, and the rocket had to rise at least 50 meters above the ground. All this had to be done before time ran out on a 135-minute period.
Friday's launch came after days of ups and downs: Communication glitches twice ruled out launch attempts on Wednesday, and a fire that broke out on the launch vehicle spoiled the Xoie rocket's maiden flight on Thursday. The blaze was quickly put out, but not quickly enough to avoid doing damage to Xoie. That damage meant Xoie couldn't get all the way through the required course.
On Thursday night, the Lunar Lander Challenge judges said they would let the Masten team make repairs to the rocket overnight and give them one more chance to fly. The team worked all night to get Xoie back in shape.
Success ... and a protest
After some technical delays, Xoie took off on Friday morning and touched down successfully on the boulder-strewn pad. Then the Masten team prepped the rocket for its return flight. A stuck valve required some last-minute fiddling. Once the fix was made, Xoie took off again and completed the course. However, there were only six minutes left in the 135-minute window to finish all the close-down tasks.
One last snag left the outcome in doubt: The truck being used to transport Xoie got stuck in the Mojave sand for a few seconds, but broke free. Masten team members scrambled to get the rocket back in position. The job was finished just under the wire.
Thus, Xoie as well as Armadillo's Scorpius qualified for a prize. The tie-breaker had to do with accuracy, as measured by average landing distance from the center targets on the pads.
Scorpius' average landing accuracy on Sept. 12 was about 34 inches (86 centimeters). The unofficial figures for Xoie were around 11 inches (28 centimeters) for the first leg of the round trip, and 4 inches (10 centimeters) for the second. The resulting average of 7.5 inches (19 centimeters) was enough to move Xoie ahead of Scorpius.
After Friday's flight, questions were raised about the fairness of giving Masten an extra opportunity to launch beyond the scheduled times on Wednesday and Thursday. Armadillo team leader John Carmack said in an e-mail that he was unhappy with the way the competition turned out:
"For the past couple weeks, as it became clear that Masten had a real shot at completing the Level 2 Lunar Lander Challenge and bettering our landing accuracy, I have been kicking myself for not taking the competition more seriously and working on a better landing accuracy. If they pulled it off, I was prepared to congratulate them and give a bit of a sheepish mea culpa. Nobody to be upset at except myself. We could have probably made a second flight in the drizzle on our scheduled days, and once we had the roll thruster issue sorted out, our landing accuracy would have been in the 20-centimeter range. I never thought it was worth investing in differential RTK GPS systems [as Masten did], because it has no bearing on our commercial operations.
"The current situation, where Masten was allowed a third active day of competition, after trying and failing on both scheduled days, is different. I don't hold anything against Masten for using an additional time window that has been offered, since we wouldn't have passed it up if we were in their situation, but I do think this was a mistake on the judges' part.
"I recognize that it is in the best interests of both the NASA Centennial Challenges department and the X Prize Foundation to award all the prize money this year, and that will likely have indirect benefits for us all in coming years. It is probably also beneficial to the nascent New Space industry to get more money to Masten than Armadillo, since we have other resources to draw upon. Permit me to be petty enough to be upset and bitter about a half-million dollars being taken from me and given to my competitor.
"The rules have given the judges the discretion to do just about anything up to and including awarding prize money for best effort if they felt it necessary, so there may not be any grounds to challenge this, but I do feel that we have been robbed. I was going to argue that if Masten was allowed to take a window on an unscheduled day with no notice, the judges should come back to Texas on Sunday and let us take our unused second window to try for a better accuracy, but our FAA waiver for the LLC vehicle was only valid for the weekend of our scheduled attempt."
In the end, the judges decided to award Masten the million dollars and give Armadillo the $500,000 second prize.
One more competitor takes flight
The contest started out with four competitors. One of the teams, BonNova, withdrew from the competition before making an official flight attempt. But the Unreasonable Rocket team - founded by Paul T. Breed and his son, Paul A. Breed - persevered to the very end.
On Friday and Saturday, Unreasonable Rocket repeatedly tried to fly its Blue Ball rocket through the Lunar Lander Challenge's Level 1 course at Cantil, Calif. The Level 1 requirements were easier than those for Level 2: The rocket had to stay up in the air for only 90 seconds during each leg of the round trip, and both landings could be made on flat pads.
Blue Ball eventually made it through the first leg of the Level 1 course on Saturday - but the rocket sustained damage during the landing and could not launch again for the second required leg. The fact that Blue Ball fell short meant Masten was assured of winning the $150,000 second prize for Level 1, thanks to Xombie's successful flight back on Oct. 7.
Unreasonable Rocket's Level 2 entrant, known as the Silver Ball, made a series of tethered test flights on Sunday. During the day's fourth test, the rocket severed the tether and crashed, ending the final flight of the Lunar Lander Challenge with a bang.
Even though they didn't win any money, Unreasonable Rocket's father-and-son team won high praise from onlookers as well as the organizers of the challenge. "They are only the third team to successfully fly the flight profile of the competition, so they have much to be proud of," the X Prize Foundation's Amanda Stiles wrote on the foundation's Launch Pad blog.
The Mojave Air and Space Port's Witt said he was happy to see multiple competitors blazing a trail for future space technologies. "I'm really proud of all the teams, regardless of the winners," he said.
Update for 3:45 p.m. ET Nov. 5: Masten and Armadillo received their awards at a Washington ceremony with a huge crew of dignitaries in attendance. "This isn't about money. It's about vision and inspiration," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was quoted as saying in the NGLLC Twitter report from the festivities.
Bolden noted that "prizes allow people to dream, and to do."
This is an updated version of a report that was first published on Oct. 28. An earlier version of this report mischaracterized the status of BonNova's rocket prototype. "The rocket was very close to flying and in the process of hover tests," the BonNova team reported.
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