The rocketeers at Armadillo Aerospace, thwarted by engine problems and other mechanical failures, left the 2007

X Prize Cup empty-handed after their spacecraft burst into flames on ignition Oct. 28


Over two days during a Holloman Air and Space Expo, attempts at snaring the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge’s $350,000 purse

were fraught with technical snags. At one point on

Oct. 27, the

Armadillo team was

within seconds of winning the money – only to have the multi-legged vehicle self-abort and tip over on landing.

An attempt the following day

to hop from launch and landing pads ended with the MOD craft bursting into flames shortly after engine ignition.

Armadillo Aerospace is led by computer gaming guru

John Carmack. This is the team’s second attempt at the challenge in New Mexico;

they were the only entrant in last year’s event, which they also failed to win


“From the field, we heard a little bit of a boom and there was a hard start on the engine of some type,” said Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation. A pre-scripted scenario of dealing with the failure was put into action.

Pete Worden, a Lunar Lander Challenge judge

and director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, told

Space News that the engine blew up, with the rocket’s engine chamber tossing out pieces onto the pad.

“It’s over for them for this X Prize Cup,” Worden said. But

“I do think they are getting there … it’s a robust design. I think they’ll make it. Once again, it proves that rocket science is hard,

” he added.

No. 1 is not to have any injuries or fatalities when you’re dealing with rockets. So from a safety perspective, everything went by the books,” said Brett Alexander, executive director for space prizes and the X Prize Cup.

Alexander relayed a comment from


: “Today is officially a bad day when it comes to our vehicle.”

was not immediately available for direct comment, but Alexander said

that the Armadillo head rocketeer opted

not to attempt another flight


The last attempt to win the $350,000 Level 1 prize Oct. 28

ended when the MOD vehicle’s

engine caught fire, causing

pieces to come

off, including disconnected cabling. Clearly, there was a fire on the pad that burned for a while – but then went out. The Armadillo team called a safety emergency, requesting fire truck assistance, Alexander said.

Throughout the two days of rocket shots, Carmack and his team had six flight attempts, two very successful flights, and a third one that burned for 83 seconds even though there was

a crack in its combustion chamber.

The Level 1 contest requires a rocket to take off from a designated launch area, rocket up to

50 meters

altitude, and then hover for 90 seconds while landing precisely on a landing pad nearly

100 meters

away. The flight must then be repeated in reverse – and both flights, along with all of the necessary preparation for each, must take place within a two-and-a-half hour period.

The more difficult Level 2 contest requires the rocket to hover for twice as long before landing precisely on a simulated lunar surface, packed with craters and boulders to mimic actual lunar terrain. The hover times are calculated so that the Level 2 mission closely simulates the power needed to perform a real lunar mission.

“I would expect that next year there will be more than one team competing, but I don’t know. I do know now that all $2 million is still on the table. So there’s an incentive for those that are still pushing … and an incentive for us to hold the cup and have a great event,” Alexander said

at a press briefing following the

Lunar Lander Challenge