October 29, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

X Prize Cup rocket competition flames out

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M.--Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace was the lone star of the X Prize Cup for a second year in a row.

By design, the X Prize Cup is a rocket festival celebrating forward-looking technologies that the organizers hope will one day turn average people into astronauts by making space travel affordable. But in practice, the event revolves around an as-yet-unsuccessful NASA competition to develop and fly a reusable lunar lander, with total prizes worth $2 million.

Armadillo, founded by Doom creator John Carmack, was the only participant of nine total teams that was ready to fly a vehicle here this weekend. Even it failed to complete more than two flights, leaving the challenge unmet for another year. (Armadillo was the sole team in 2006 as well.)

"The money's on the table until someone wins," NASA spokesman Ken Davidian said during the event.

To bolster enthusiasm and attendance, the X Prize Cup was combined for the first time this year with an air show at Holloman Air Force Base, which is about an hour from the New Mexico-Texas border. Organizers expected the collaboration to draw between 50,000 and 100,000 spectators. But judging by the crowd this weekend, attendance seemed to fall well short of those numbers.

X Prize Cup

Not helping matters, the X Prize Cup's chief sponsor this year and last--cell phone retailer Wirefly--backed out of its $500,000 obligation weeks before the kickoff. This seemingly led organizers to scale back on crowd-friendly things like Jumbotron screens so that people could see what little action there was up close.

Of course, it wasn't all a dud. There were skydivers, demos of fighter jets, and an expo of new and old military planes and helicopters. There were hotdog trucks, cotton candy, and simulator games that let kids fly rockets or view the planet from Google Earth. But as for working rockets, heated competition, and the promise of a new era, the event fell short.

The weekend's one true highlight was the few minutes that Texas-based Armadillo flew its computer-controlled rocket, called the MOD, which has a liquid-oxygen engine. On Saturday, the team flew more than 90 seconds: 50 meters vertically, 50 meters horizontally and then another 50 meters down hovering over the launch pad. It descended and landed without a hitch.

After that feat, the announcer joked: "If John were playing 'Doom' he would be advancing to the next level."

But to win $350,000 in the first level of Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, Armadillo had to complete the same flight a second time within two and a half hours. On its second try Saturday, Armadillo's craft tipped over upon landing.

The team suffered similar mishaps throughout its four launch attempts, including a cracked engine that likely caused a fire on the vehicle. Event officials had to call the fire department Sunday and Armadillo's hopes at claiming the prize went up in smoke.

Overall, the festival seemed to be a metaphor for the private space industry: Despite everyone's best efforts and enthusiasm, it's not quite believable yet.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation, the event's host, said it best in opening remarks Saturday. "This is the birth of the dream."

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6 comments

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Liquid oxygen...
The MOD runs on liquid oxygen, you say? Anything else? Aside
from monopropellant systems like hydrogen peroxide, there are
usually at least two components. Often, LOX is used with a
hydrocarbon, or hydrogen, or something.
Posted by billmosby (536 comments )
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Thanks, language tweaked
Thanks for pointing out. We tweaked the language a bit to clarify.
Posted by meyersm (51 comments )
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Quite believable actually....
"Despite everyone's best efforts and enthusiasm, it's not quite believable yet."

So you don't believe that Bigelow Aerospace (www.bigelowaerospace.com) has two large functional habitats in orbit at this moment?

So you don't believe that Blue Origin (www.blueorigin.com) is flying their Goddard vehicle?

I guess there's no point in telling you that XCOR flew its rocketplane on Friday since you won't believe it. Their Rocket Racer will fly over and over without major overhauls. (BTW: the company - www.xcor.com - has fired their various engines a total of over 2600 times without a hard start.)

Even with Armadillo, I guess you can't believe your eyes when you see all those videos on their website showing them flying their rocket vehicles again and again.

What's unbelievable is how many writers in the tech area seem to have no idea about how technologies are developed in the real world of engineering.

Every technology goes through a painful iterative process of encountering a problem, fixing it and then going on to the next problem. Usually this all occurs behind the lab doors. For large scale rocketry it is out where everyone can see the process and can make cute comments when there are the inevitable failures.

Armadillo and the other companies will just keep plugging away and their accomplishments will eventually transition from the not quite believable to the totally taken for granted.
Posted by HSpacer (2 comments )
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More of the Same
I agree with all of the above and note that the live broadcasts of SpaceShipOne's flights and those of SpaceX are quite believable.

SpaceShipOne (a "Plastic" "Homebuilt Spaceship") not only far exceeded the speed performance of the X-1, it also exceeded all altitude records achieved by "X" craft for 17 years(X-1 to X-15). For those it "Duplicated the Past", learning how to do it easier.

More to the point, it also exceeded the primary objectives of the X-33 (a 1.3 $$ Billion, radio controlled model of what was imagined to one day become a Shuttle Replacement): SpaceShipOne exceeded the X-33 altitude objective, since the later was not planned to go significantly above 100 km, it exceeded the reusable, rapid turn around goals, it demonstrated the superiority of composites for spacecraft and it also flew with life support systems and a live crew member.

Keep in mind that two other entrepreneurial groups have also achieved suborbital spaceflight.

Few remember the high cost failures during development of the manned Apollo LEM (Lunar Lander), but they certainly existed.

Amateur Radio Satellites pioneered many satellite communications methods including message "store and forward, and "CubeSats" are providing entrepreneurial opportunities today.

Armadillo has already achieved at least three flawless "Lunar" takeoffs and landings, even though they have not yet strung two together.

Other teams have demonstrated a surprising variety of high performance liquid fuel engines, with from dozens of pounds thrust to 800,000 pounds (Beal Aerospace), and a variety of operational control systems.

It is accurate to say that the industry they address belittles their achievements and has taken active steps to sabotage their marketing efforts.

Scoffers can always find "reasons to not believe", and did so after the first successful transatlantic flights. Lindberg's success (not the first) was so visible and spectacular that the scoffers were laughed at. But for thirty years they reminded people that flying was not practical or "safe".

For those committed to the idea that "it's not quite believable yet." there remains the claim that "Apollo was a Hoax" - in spite of the fact that the Laser Reflectors they placed are still in use today by Earth's astronomers.

Given the long list of documented entrepreneurial space accomplishments, it takes people with little imagination and poor memory to "not believe" that more will be achieved in the near future.
Posted by rpspeck (1 comment )
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wanted a wing ten miles long and ten miles wide
3thousandths of inch hightensile galvanized with
3thou. zinc then hydrogen for lift THE RIBS (like
a dryer vent) only 8foot dia. made out of the galvanized iron PUT THEM EVERY QUARTER MILE inflate to one tenth psi USE MICROWAVE LASER TO HEAT THE HYDROGEN IN THE WING to 60 centegrade if needed for more lift WHEN IN VACUUM DO NOT TAKE THE HYDROGEN OUT OF THE RIBS BUT TAKE iT OUT
OF THE REMAINDER OF THE WING (compress into tanks
with solar electric or laser electtric motor)
ADD 1 ONE SPACE SHUTTLE AS PAYLOAD do not go fast
150 miles per hour will do !
REMOVE HYDROGEN FROM RIBS TO COME DOWN
do not go fast 150 miles per hour will do !
THEN ADD HYDROGEN TO THE WING AS NEEDED ! A 400
MILE LONG ARM WILL WORK IN SPACE attach arm to shuttle !
Posted by lawrence hordy (2 comments )
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