October 21, 2006 9:39 AM PDT

Lunar landers disappoint in the desert

LAS CRUCES, N.M.--We've got a long way to go before putting more people on the moon, particularly if private industry is the sole innovator.

Here at the second-annual Wirefly X Prize Cup, one of the marquee events was the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, a $2 million contest for private companies to show off and test new space craft technology that could simulate landing on the moon.

One of the signs of ill-preparedness was that four of the five teams originally set to compete Friday dropped out.

Armadillo Aerospace, a Mesquite, Texas-based research outfit and the sole competitor, got off the ground Friday in the first-round of the contest and even flew vertically to specification, but its legs buckled upon landing, causing a fire. Armadillo plans to refit the computer-controlled vehicle, "Pixel," by borrowing parts from its second craft, "Texel," for a second try at prize money on Saturday.

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The Lunar Lander Challenge was designed to test the design of rocket-propelled moon vehicles, a la Apollo. The contest required Armadillo to fly at least 50 meters in altitude and then land vertically within 100 meters of the takeoff point, thereby simulating a landing on the lunar surface.

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission, was present at the X Prize Cup on Friday and said building new space vehicles to land on the moon will ultimately help the United States explore Mars.

"The moon is really a learning place to develop technology we need for Mars," said Aldrin. "That's what the Lunar Lander Challenge is all about, promoting that idea."

Armadillo, which professionally is developing manned suborbital vehicles, built two computer-controlled LOX/ethanol rockets for this competition. Pixel and Texel are nearly all aluminum built with four sphere tanks. They have carbon chamber engines wrapped in carbon fiber for strength. They're fueled with 190-proof ethanol, something akin to alcohol but not made for digesting. Another internal tank in both rockets takes liquid oxygen.

Before taking off, Armadillo engineers said they were having problems with navigating the rockets, so they installed an external camera on the vehicles to land it properly. "We almost didn't make it. It takes 38 flights to iron out the bugs," said one Armadillo engineer who has volunteered on X Prize Cup project.

Aldrin summed up the task of building next generation lunar landing vehicles by saying: "Space is something that will take a lot of time."

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Earth Should Be Our Most Compelling Challenge
I grew up watching the "Space Race" and stood in awe in front of the Television as Neil Armstrong uttered the instantly famous words "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." As I put together plastic models of spacecraft named Apollo and Eagle, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

Although I am still an avid amateur astronomer and am thrilled that Virgin Galactic is almost ready to take ordinary people into "space," I have deep reservations about our national space efforts. Getting back to the Moon or even to Mars, seems far less important than solving our global dependency on non-renewable energy or finding ways to make sure every member of the human race has enough to eat.

I think we need to solve these and other significant terrestrial problems, before we expend any further energy on extra-terrestrial endeavors. Once we have eliminated pollution, dependency on fossil fuels, disease and war, we can and should renew our quest to expand our horizons into space.
Posted by westrajc (78 comments )
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I agree that we should solve these problems but we also need to keep in mind that the earth is rapidly becoming severely overpopulated and we need to start looking for another place to live.
Posted by yrrahxob (77 comments )
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Dun put all eggs in one basket.
Man migrate throughout history. Staying put on only one place, in this case planet, is not a very good idea. True no other planet looks viable or the hope of finding one seem ultra remote. Well we must try. I do not believe Europe before the new continent was found was a trouble free place. Looking back i do not believe it made sense to say," Hey we got people starving, do not go looking for the end of the earth."
"Every member of the human race has enough to eat" is quite frankly never been done before, we can try, through i doubt its effectiveness and the sense of it. There is never enough.
To turn the situation around its just like saying, we shall not do anything else until we find a new planet to live on.
Posted by pjianwei (206 comments )
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Maybe, or maybe not
While that is all well and good, if JFK had said the same thing, we would still be pounding rocks together and saying "Fire good" while the Russians built Lunar cities.
Yes, we should try to fix our problems here on Earth, but if there is nothing to aspire to, then nobody will have any interest in doing the boring grubby work that will have to be done to fix our current problems.
Plus, the space program has given back more inventions and innovations than it cost to put forth the program. Space programs are more than worth their weight in gold in the innovations, inventions and new ways to use old stuff that they provide.
Posted by Vurk (147 comments )
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Impractical
"Once we have eliminated pollution, dependency on fossil fuels, disease and war, we can and should renew our quest to expand our horizons into space."

Pollution will never be eliminated, as well as disease and war. Although noble, your suggestion is never the less too idealistic to be rational.
Posted by tanis143 (122 comments )
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You're right, but...
You are absolutely right, 100% Now, here is why most will ignore you: It's easier to shoot for the moon than it is to fix our current earthly problems.

On Earth, we have governments and redtape getting in the way of fixing our problems. Here's an example. Soy could be used to feed the starving people of the world, but for some reason, we don't do it. We allow them to starve. Why? The right people aren't being paid off.

GM had an electric car prototype, way before the 'gas crisis' but they killed the project. Why? Big business killed it.

We are currently cutting down the rainforest to make grazing land for cows that fart tons of methaine into the air. The less trees we have, the less CO2 is converted to O2 and the more Methaine makes our entire planet hotter.

We know what needs to be done, but we don't do it. It's easier to shoot for the moon. Less red tape and less hands to grease.
Posted by thedreaming (573 comments )
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No
It is important to work more things than just Earth, because it helps us understand our universe more, and you never know if what you are developing may have a good use on earth (like plastic).
Posted by frmorrison (13 comments )
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