Despite a grand finale that ended with some unexpected excitement, organizers of the “Countdown to the X Prize Cup” declared the event a success after attracting thousands of onlookers who explored space capsules, rubbed elbows with astronauts and watched rockets shoot through the sky.

The event, which ran Oct. 6-9, was organized by the X Prize Foundation and hosted by the State of New Mexico, and included an event dubbed “The Personal Spaceflight Expo.”

“There are a lot of people out there that don’t believe that space tourism is viable or real. A lot of people think you’ve got to be NASA or you’ve got to be a world government to do this kind of thing,” Starchaser Industries Chief Executive Steve Bennett said. “What we’re doing here is proving to ordinary people that you can make this happen … and that personal spaceflight is just around the corner.”

Toward the end of the festivities Oct. 9, Starchaser encountered a dramatic fire during a demonstration of its rocket engine. The problem involved the engine’s liquid oxygen inlet manifold, which resulted in the formation of a 9-meter diameter ball of flame and a trail of black smoke that could be seen for miles.

“Everyone was convinced that the engine had blown up,” Bennett said. Instead, the Starchaser firing officer shut off power to the engine within two seconds of the anomalous engine start, so that fire crews could move in to extinguish the flames, he said.

The Starchaser team eventually found their Churchill 2 engine covered with soot, but very much intact, Bennett said. An investigation revealed that trace amounts of fuel had made it into a liquid oxygen manifold. The subsequent explosion, although minor , was enough to detach a liquid oxygen hose while the kerosene fuel was being expelled from the engine nozzle, creating the dramatic fireball.

“Churchill 2 is just a couple of welds away form being as good as new,” Bennett said . “We will fix her up, make a few adjustments and then we will be good to go again. “

The Oct. 9 event was the ninth occasion the engine had been test fired and followed a successful pre-expo firing Oct. 8 where the engine performed flawlessly.

Xcor Aerospace also demonstrated its EZ-Rocket here at the Las Cruces airport. The vehicle is a precursor to the company’s Mark-1 X-Racer now under development, with planned test flights in the spring and summer of 2006.

The EZ-Rocket was put through its paces by former shuttle astronaut, Rick Searfoss. Demonstration flights of the EZ-Rocket signals the emergence of a new Rocket Racing League that will be part of future X Prize Foundation activities.

Armadillo Aerospace got its rocket-powered, vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing vehicle off the ground. It blasted off into the sky hovered for a few seconds, then began lowering itself to the ground — but tipped over on touchdown. The wet ground due to overnight rain was the cause, although the craft appeared undamaged in the fall. An internal hose was punctured, however, causing subsequent flights to be scrubbed.