Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
 / Updated 
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Team BonNova
  BonNova's Lauryad rocket blasts off during a test 

  in January. The team dropped out on Sunday.

Five days from now, a bunch of no-longer-amateur rocketeers are going to be at least $1.15 million richer, thanks to a NASA-backed contest for lunar lander prototypes. But the identity of the winners is still up in the air.

You need a scorecard to keep track of what's happening in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, which ends this year's launch season on Saturday. Here's a roundup that touches upon the four - oops, make that three - teams in the competition:

Team BonNova

This small cadre of rocketeers - headed by engineer Allen Newcomb, a veteran of the SpaceShipOne development effort at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif. - announced on the eve of their scheduled launch attempt that they were dropping out of the race.

"BonNova regrets to announce that we will not be flying in the competition this year," the team said on Sunday in response to an e-mail inquiry. Similar regrets were posted as a Twitter update.

Just a few hours before dropping out, BonNova said it would distribute an update on its plans "as soon as the team gets in from the field" - which suggests that Newcomb and his teammates (including actress, author and sometime space sexologist Vanna Bonta) took one last look at their progress before deciding not to fly today. In an e-mail, the BonNova team said the decision was "extremely painful." (Read the update below for the details.)

The BonNova rocketeers have conducted a series of engine tests, including a brief liftoff for their lightweight Lauryad prototype in January. Team members said they would continue work on the Lauryad (which is named after a spaceship mentioned in one of Bonta's books).

Masten Space Systems

Another California venture, Masten Space Systems, has already qualified for one of the lesser prizes in the Lunar Lander Challenge: the $150,000 second prize in the Level 1 contest. Masten's Xombie rocket did the job earlier this month by making two rocket-powered hops between one landing pad and another at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Each flight required 90 seconds of hang time between launch and landing.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Masten plans to fly a lightweight version of the Xombie craft, known as XA-0.1E or Xoie. This vehicle has been slimmed down to accommodate the extra fuel needed needed for the Level 2 competition. Level 2 calls for 180 seconds of hang time, and one of the landings has to be done on a lunar-style pad strewn with boulders and craters.

If Masten completes the Level 2 course, it would qualify for an additional $500,000 in prize money. And if it lands more accurately than Armadillo Aerospace did last month, it could come away with the $1 million top prize.

Those are both big ifs, however. "This event is part of the test program of this very new vehicle that we started putting together a bit over a month ago," Masten team member Ben Brockert said last week in an e-mailed advisory. "Events may transpire between now and then that preclude us from making the attempt on the first day, or at all."

Unreasonable Rocket

The "two Pauls" - Paul Breed Sr. and his son, Paul Breed Jr. - are due to take the final turn in the Lunar Lander Challenge. They've reserved Friday and Saturday for their flight attempts. One vehicle, known as the Blue Ball, has been designed for 90-second Level 1 flights. The elder Breed said in a Sunday update that "we have a chance to tie Masten in the 90-sec contest, but beating them outright would require some significant luck."

If that particular flyoff is judged to be a tie, Masten and Unreasonable Rocket would split the $150,000 Level 1 second-prize purse. (Armadillo won the $350,000 first prize last year.)

Breed admitted that their Level 2 attempt would have to "go down to the last minute." Right now the vehicle designed to hover for 180 seconds, known as the Silver Ball, is not ready for prime time. It all depends on whether Breed and his team can get the parts they need and pull off a miracle or two.

"If we can fly for 180 seconds, we can beat Armadillo's accuracy, so it becomes a risk/reward game," Breed said.

He laid out a scenario in which a rocket that would cost $50,000 to build again might have a 10 percent chance of success and a 90 percent chance of destruction. In that scenario, Breed figured he'd have to weigh a risk factor of (0.9 X $50,000) against a reward factor of (0.l X $1,000,000). If you're playing along with this game theory, that's $45,000 loss calculation vs. a $100,000 gain calculation.

"The calculus changes a little bit depending on Masten's result," Breed wrote.

Breed also commented on BonNova's exit from the race: "I know exactly where they are in the process, and it's a really hard place to be in. So close, but no realistic chance of completion. We were there last year."

Unreasonable Rocket and Masten Space Systems have made phenomenal progress in the past year, and both ventures intend to pursue further opportunities in the launch industry. Winning a prize would bring an extra dollop of prestige as well as cash. But losing a vehicle would really sting - not only in the pride department but in the pocketbook as well.

Armadillo Aerospace

The Texas-based team backed by millionaire video-game programmer John Carmack is in an enviable and excruciating position. They nailed the Level 2 competition last month, qualifying for the $1 million. But if either Masten or Unreasonable Rocket lands more accurately, their take would be reduced to $500,000. And if both of those teams do better, Armadillo would be left with zilch.

Although Armadillo is done with the Lunar Lander Challenge, the team is continuing to push the envelope. Over the weekend, the team reported that Armadillo's Mod vehicle was flown to a height of 200 meters (656 feet) - four times as high as the Lunar Lander Challenge requirement. Future tests will work up to more than a mile's worth of altitude.

At some point, Armadillo may have to switch their base of operations to a more serious rocket range at Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Stay tuned for more about that spaceport in a later posting.)

The Lunar Lander Challenge was designed to fit the rocket requirements for a hypothetical lunar landing, but the three teams now vying for the prize money aren't shooting for the moon ... yet. Instead, they're targeting potential applications for suborbital and eventually orbital flights, ranging from unmanned research flights to suborbital tourist jaunts, vertical drag racing and space diving.

The X Prize Foundation, which is managing the challenge for NASA with sponsorship money from Northrop Grumman, said last week in a news release that the contest is doing what it's supposed to do.

"When this prize was first announced, there was hardly any work being done in this important field of rocketry. ... We're witnessing the birth of a new sector of the industry, and NASA, the U.S. government and private customers are all going to benefit," said William Pomerantz, the foundation's senior director of space prizes.

Update for 11:25 p.m. ET: Here's BonNova's e-mailed response to questions about their "extremely painful" decision to drop out of the competition:

There was not one isolated thing or factor that caused team BonNova to scrub their flight date.  The team ran out of time.

Did you get into flight testing?  (What was the stage of testing on Sunday, day before flight, when the team was out in the field?)

On Sunday we were trying to fly our 45-second hover.

How do you feel about having to bow out of flying in the competition today when you realized there was no way the Lauryad would fly in time?

Extreme, deep disappointment.

Team leader and chief engineer Allen Newcomb said, "Give me an hour and I'll come up with 600 metaphors, most of them relating to the inner circle of hell."

Overall progress made?

We got Level 2 thrust out of the Lauryad's primary engine design.

Do you plan to continue developing the lander or technologies for it?

Yes. Lunar Lander technology and suborbital Earth launch technology.

How did your team perform?

"Heroically."  (said Allen Newcomb)

Not counting an ongoing two-year endeavor, with many 16-hour days, as the contest date approached, they worked 20 hours a day for two weeks.

Obviously inspired and driven by dedication, when asked, "If you had known it would be this challenging would you do it all over again?"

"Never in a million years." (said Newcomb)

"This event and others like it encourage, support, and celebrate the enterprising innovation of pioneers working to give humanity wings. Our neighborhood - this solar system, the cosmos, actually - is so much more vast and amazing than the paltry headlines, insanity, and politics crammed at us daily as so-called news. The beauty of the 'hood and discoveries that await us are deserving of our attention and mandatory to our survival as a species." - Vanna Bonta, on the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge

More on BonNova from the X Prize Web site

For more about the Lunar Lander Challenge, check out this report in The Economist. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And buy a copy of my book, "The Case for Pluto," which is coming out today.