Private rocketry took another big step here thanks to the persistence and space spunk of Armadillo Aerospace. After years of dedicated work, the team of rocketeers snagged a large chunk of prize money in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.
The challenge is a two-level, $2 million competition designed to accelerate commercial space technology as part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program.
Vehicles built for the contest mimic lunar landers that exhibit the technological wherewithal common to ferrying payloads or humans back and forth between lunar orbit and the lunar surface.
The third Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge was held here at the Las Cruces International Airport on Friday and Saturday — and once again, the Land of Enchantment was turned into the Land of Countdowns.
Led by John Carmack, a 3-D graphics pioneer and video-game developer, Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas, had long sought Lunar Lander Challenge money.
In 2006, Armadillo's "Pixel" was the only craft to fly at the X Prize Cup, also held here, and narrowly missed making a Level 1 win, but failed to do so due to broken landing gear. A year later, the team missed the prize by seven seconds.
Friday's win had the Armadillo team successfully fly their vehicle to a height of 160 feet (50 meters), then sky-scoot itself over to a distant landing pad, land safely after a minimum of 90 seconds of in-the-air time — and then repeat the flight.
That earned the Armadillo team $350,000 in prize money.
As champagne corks flew, Carmack was clearly elated: "All right! After three years of trying at this we know we can do this ... It's just having the circumstances work out right for us."
This year, Armadillo faced its first head-to-head competitor. Also eyeing Level 1 prize money was TrueZer0 of Chicago.
But shortly after liftoff, their vehicle ran into trouble. The flight was aborted with the craft — called Ignignokt — nose-diving into scrub brush and bouncing on its head to a final, but busted-up stop.
"The vehicle is basically a total loss at this point," Scott Zeeb of TrueZer0 said in a post-crash briefing. "It was really not designed to take anything like that, obviously."
TrueZer0 team member Todd Squires said the craft began to spin as it reached altitude. "It started to wobble. I could see what was going on ... the spin was causing it to do that. So I hit the abort key and dropped it to the ground."
Zeeb added: "The motor almost looks OK but the nozzle is a little bent ... so it might make a nice paperweight for my desk."
While the TrueZer0 group admitted that they had hoped to do better, "we came out here with the understanding that we hadn't tested a huge amount. We knew this was a real possibility ... and we're OK with it," Zeeb explained.
The vehicle was a $10,000 loss. "I'm going to have a beer and get some sleep," Zeeb said.
Cash left on the table
Hoping to snare more NASA Centennial Challenge money, Armadillo Aerospace tried on Saturday to fly the Level 2 Challenge, which carried a $1 million first prize.
Doing so meant flying a different vehicle geared to tackle a more difficult task. The rocket needed to fly for 180 seconds, and then maneuver to a precise landing atop a crater-pocked and rock-laden look-alike of a lunar landscape.
Instead, the plucky craft failed shortly after ignition, falling on its side.
"We had a burn-through on the engine which caused it to shut down just as it was throttling up," Carmack later reported. The vehicle suffered other damage as well, with the Armadillo Aerospace team calling it a day without further flights.
"Once we really identify the root cause ... we will kill the problem dead," an undaunted Carmack said.
"We think it's something on our electronics drivers," Carmack told Space.com. "When we looked back at older data traces ... we could see signs of this being a problem before. But it was only like in the last week when we started testing these for this year that it actually became a problem causing aborts. ... But nothing is going to fly until we've got a fix."
Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation, saluted the Armadillo win. The X Prize Foundation manages the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge for the NASA Centennial Challenges Program.
"The incredible legacy of Armadillo is their ability to fly over and over again in a low-cost fashion. They actually build the vehicle, fly it, see what happens, and make the repairs. They can iterate multiple times in a couple of days," Diamandis told Space.com. "It's really the garage rocket scientist approach to low-cost reliable vehicles. I think it's something that the larger companies and the government should be learning from."
Diamandis said that he hopes the Armadillo win is a stimulus for more teams. "There's $1.65 million left on the table," he noted.
Spaceport America's future
Not too distant from the Las Cruces International Airport is the still-to-be-built Spaceport America — slated to be home base for Virgin Galactic and its suborbital spaceliner operations — an enterprise backed by lofty visionary Richard Branson.
"New Mexico and Spaceport America are committed to enabling the commercial space industry. The Lunar Lander Challenge is accelerating technology development," said Steve Landeene, Executive Director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.
"Armadillo's capture of the $350,000 Level 1 prize marks a significant milestone in the race to space. No longer will space be relegated to government agencies," Landeene noted.
A new partnership to create a vertical takeoff/landing vehicle for suborbital passenger flight was announced during the challenge, linking up the Rocket Racing League, Armadillo Aerospace, and the state — a joint collaboration that adds to the list of companies who have already committed to do their work in New Mexico and Spaceport America, Landeene pointed out.
"New Mexico and Spaceport America are thrilled to be the place where Armadillo will develop their vehicle," Landeene said. "The race to space is on for suborbital transportation. Two totally different experiences will be provided. What a great day this is."