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Lunar lander qualifies for prize

William Pomerantz / X Prize Foundation
Armadillo Aerospace's Scorpius rocket fires its engine above a mock lunar landing

pad on Saturday while a ground crew member looks on from a distance.

Armadillo Aerospace qualified to win a million dollars of NASA's money today by accomplishing a rocket-powered round trip modeled after a moon landing. The team's remote-controlled Scorpius rocket (formerly known as the Super Mod) blasted off from its Texas launch pad, rose into the sky and floated over to set down on a mock moon landing pad. After refueling, Scorpius blasted off again for what one observer called a "perfect flight" back to the original launch pad.

The judges confirmed that Armadillo satisfied all the contest requirements. Scorpius made pinpoint landings within a meter of each landing pad's center target, according to William Pomerantz, the director of space prizes for the X Prize Foundation.

That means the million-dollar top prize in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge will definitely be given away this year. But Armadillo's rocketeers will still have to wait another month and a half to find out if they won, while other entrants in the competition try to do the same feat better.

Rainy conditions posed a challenge for the flight, and for a while it looked as if the prospects for flying today were slim. A fortunate break in the weather gave Armadillo a chance to go for the gold.

William Pomerantz / X Prize Foundation
Members of the Armadillo Aerospace team celebrate after Saturday's flight.

Update for 10:20 p.m. ET Sept. 14: Armadillo team leader John Carmack and others celebrated the weekend's success in a statement that hinted at the road ahead:

John Carmack said: "Since the Lunar Lander Challenge is quite demanding in terms of performance, with a few tweaks our Scorpius vehicle actually has the capability to travel all the way to space. We'll be moving quickly to do higher-altitude tests, and we can go up to about 6,000 feet here at our home base in Texas before we'll have to head to New Mexico where we can really push the envelope. We already have scientific payloads from universities lined up to fly as well, so this will be an exciting next few months for commercial spaceflight."

Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, which manages the prize on behalf of NASA's Centennial Challenges program, said: "Carmack and the entire Armadillo team made it look easy … an overnight success after four years of hard work. Congratulations on two perfect flights. Now we’ll need to see if any other teams attempt the Level-2, Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. If no one does, then Armadillo will win $1 million in purse cash. I’m hopeful that this success will allow policymakers to see the power and success of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program."

Brett Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said: "Congratulations to Armadillo Aerospace, NASA and the X Prize Foundation for their excellent teamwork in making this week's Lunar Lander Challenge milestone possible. This competition shows exactly how much NASA can benefit from close engagement with the commercial spaceflight sector."

You can get the latest tweets about the Lunar Lander Challenge via this Twitter news feed. Read on for the full story behind the challenge and its payoff:

First posted 8:40 p.m. ET Sept. 11: Video-game millionaire John Carmack is aiming to win a million dollars of NASA's money when he and his Armadillo Aerospace teammates take the field this weekend for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. And the way he sees it, the biggest thing standing in his way is an obstacle that's become quite familiar to NASA's space jockeys of late: the weather.

"It looks bad all weekend," Carmack told me via telephone from Caddo, Texas. "We need two hours without precipitation, basically, to get this done."

NASA faced its own weather problems this week at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the weather was so unstable that mission planners diverted the shuttle Discovery to a California landing site instead. Carmack doesn't have that kind of option available to him: For better or worse, he and his Armadillo team have to launch and land their Super Mod lander prototype at their Texas test site at least twice sometime in the next couple of days, or pass up this year's chance to win a million-dollar prize.

"I'm really most worried about the weather, all things considered," said Carmack, who has steered Armadillo's remote-controlled rocket through prize-worthy practice runs more than a dozen times. "It's just business as usual now. As long as my nerves stay together for another 30 hours or so, I think we're going to be OK."

How the challenge works

NASA set up the Lunar Lander Challenge three years ago, ostensibly to promote the development of rocket technologies that could come into play during future moon landings. What the competition has actually done is give a new generation of rocketeers something to shoot for - just as the $10 million Ansari X Prize encouraged the rise of private-sector spaceflight.

The contest, backed by $2 million in prizes provided by NASA, is set up with two levels. Last year in New Mexico, Armadillo took the top prize for the easier level, netting $350,000. Controlled via Carmack's laptop, the Mod rocket blasted off and rose to a height of more than 160 feet (50 meters), hung in the air for a minute and a half, then landed on another launch pad. After a pause for refueling, the Mod retraced its course back to the original pad for the win.

This time, Armadillo's Super Mod faces a tougher task in the Level 2 competition: The alcohol-fueled, pressure-tank-equipped rocket has to hang in the air for a minimum of 3 minutes during each leg of the round trip, and it has to land on a pad that is strewn with mock lunar boulders.

The judges will give Carmack and the rest of the ground crew just 135 minutes to fuel up, fly, refuel, fly again and secure the Super Mod after the flight. There will be built-in holds along the way, however, so the whole exercise could take longer than 135 minutes - in fact, Carmack is wondering whether the clock can be stopped if it starts raining.

"Will the judges stop time and let us pick up later?" he asked. (The answer, we found out later, is yes.)

The funny thing about this contest is that the Armadillo team may not know for sure until October whether it's won a prize. That's because, unlike past years, the 2009 Lunar Lander Challenge is a traveling road show.

Masten Space Systems is due to try for the Level 1 second prize ($150,000) next week at its home base in Mojave, Calif. It will also shoot for Level 2 on Oct. 7-8 and Oct. 28-29. Another competitor, Unreasonable Rocket, will shoot for Level 1 as well as Level 2 at its launch site in Cantil, Calif., on Oct. 30-31.

If multiple teams guide their rocket through the required course successfully, the prize goes to the rocketeers with the best average accuracy. Thus, Armadillo could conceivably accomplish the Level 2 flight and still miss out on the $1 million first prize as well as the $500,000 second prize.

"To wait another month and a half to find out what place you got - that's a little bit odd, but it's understandable," Carmack said.

The challenge's prime payoff

A million dollars would go a long way toward accelerating Armadillo's progress - or progress at Masten, or Unreasonable Rocket, for that matter. Carmack's team may be a little better off, in light of the fact that the company where he works, Id Software, was recently acquired by ZeniMax Media. "I have a bit more personal resources at my disposal," he said. In any case, he's planning to expand Armadillo's team of three full-time employees and four hourly workers sometime soon.

It's safe to say that the folks at Armadillo, Masten and Unreasonable Rocket aren't thinking about building an actual lunar lander right now - so the current wave of second thoughts over NASA's moon plans won't affect their business plans at all. The Lunar Lander Challenge is just one small step in the long march of private-sector commercial spaceflight. Armadillo, for example, is continuing to work on a rocket engine program for the Rocket Racing League - and on some other projects that Carmack can't talk about quite yet.

"Eventually we're hoping to go all the way to orbit," Carmack said. But that milestone is still many small steps ahead. For now, he's just worried about getting a couple of hours without rain this weekend - and getting a chance to deliver on the true promise of the Lunar Lander Challenge.

The X Prize Foundation, which is managing the challenge with sponsorship from Northrop Grumman, estimates that the contest has generated more than 70,000 hours of skilled work on advanced rocket technologies, with just $350,000 paid out to date. In the long run, that payoff may dwarf the million dollars as well as the rocket ships built to win that cash.

"I think the government is getting a tremendous return on what they've put into this," Carmack said. "When it gets to the point where we have to go and find more great people, we know exactly which people have demonstrated the right type of thinking, the right skill sets and the right determination."

For further updates: You can get the latest on Twitter by doing a search for #ngllc or following @NGLLC09 or @jeff_foust. Jeff Foust has posted YouTube videos of Scorpius' first flight of the day as well as the second flight.

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