With the moon visible overhead, Armadillo Aerospace unsuccessfully attempted to win the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge at the Wirefly X PRIZE Cup this weekend at Holloman Air Force Base. The only competitor of nine ready to go for the event, Armadillo Aerospace, led by John Carmack of Doom and Quake fame, experienced both successes and failures during multiple launch attempts. While able to rise 50 meters from the launch pad, move laterally 50 meters, and land after staying aloft at least 90 seconds, the teams vehicle was not able to repeat this feat to return to the launch pad within two and a half hours as required by competition rules. Earlier failures included thrust vectoring problems due to a crack in the vehicle’s engine and an aborted launch soon after liftoff. The team was able to repair some damage rapidly to try again later, but their final attempt on Sunday ended in disaster, with flames engulfing the vehicle immediately after the launch sequence began.
Armadillo Aerospace, a private company started by Doom and Quake game developer John Carmack, has been the leading contender for the prize that is intended to accelerate techniques and innovations for future lunar landers. The other eight registrants were not ready by the time of the event to compete. At stake is $350,000 in prize money for first place in level one of the competition. Level two will award a larger prize but requires 180 seconds aloft over rough terrain. Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, explained to the audience that the competition’s return flight requirement is meant to demonstrate reusability of the vehicle within a short amount of time by a small team of technicians. This contrasts with shuttle launches that require many people, several months, and approximately US$1,000,000,000 in costs for turnaround.
The failure by Armadillo Aerospace to walk away with the prize opens up the competition to other teams during the 2008 X PRIZE Cup. According to a representative for the Speed Up team, they only need a few more months to make “Laramie Rose,” their entry vehicle, ready for competition.