As part of the X PRIZE Foundation's Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, Armadillo Aerospace, led by id Software founder John Carmack, successfully flew its lunar Lander rocket vehicle, "Scorpius," twice in two hours, flying between a pair of landing pads to qualify for the $1 million top prize purse. This milestone event in privately funded space activity once again demonstrates the value of prizes to stimulate innovation. Other entrants in the competition will have the opportunity over the next several weeks to accomplish the same feat, but Armadillo's flights mean it is certain NASA's Centennial Challenges Program and the X PRIZE Foundation will be giving away at least $1 million before year's end.
These successful flights underscore last week's report to President Obama by the Augustine Commission, which called for increased commercial sector participation both in orbital operations and NASA's efforts to reach the Moon by 2020.
In order to meet the requirements of Level 2 of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, the Scorpius vehicle had to simulate a full lunar lander mission with a flight profile that closely simulates the task of descending from lunar orbit to the lunar surface, refueling, and returning to lunar orbit. To match the performance of such a mission here on Earth, the vehicle was required to ascend to a height of 50 meters, translate horizontally to a landing pad 50 meters away, land safely on a rocky lunar-replica surface after at least 180 seconds of flight time, and then to repeat the flight by returning to the original launch site. The two flights of Scorpius, which weighs about 1900 pounds when fully loaded with its ethanol and liquid oxygen propellant, took place Sept. 12th at the Caddo Mills Municipal Airport in Texas, where Armadillo Aerospace's facilities are based.
John Carmack, head of Armadillo Aerospace, stated, "Since the [Northrop Grumman] Lunar Lander Challenge is quite demanding in terms of performance, with a few tweaks our Scorpius vehicle actually has the capability to travel all the way to space." When asked what lessons the traditional aerospace community should learn from their success, Carmack answered, "You learn so much more by getting out there and doing things than you do sitting at a desk running a CAD program. You can't even imagine some of the things that wind up going wrong. It's the unknown unknowns that get you. You wind up getting things done by going out there and trying it, accepting levels of failure and you beat the problem into submission by working on it over and over and over again. And when you can build your operations tempo up to doing things every day, that's what we want to see in the aerospace world."
Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, which created and manages the prize on behalf of NASA's Centennial Challenges program, said, "the ultimate goal of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge is to inspire a new cadre of rocket entrepreneurs that can enable an era of commercial exploration which we call Moon 2.0. On the heels of this week's recommendation by the Augustine Commission, Armadillo's successful launches have more significance than ever before. We believe the time is right for private industry to supply NASA with hardware and services to enable suborbital, orbital, and lunar exploration. We are hopeful that this success will allow policymakers to see the power and success of NASA's Centennial Challenges program -- and the capacity of American businesses to aid on our nation's space program. Congratulations to Armadillo on two excellent flights."
"Other teams will make attempts to win Level 1 second place prize money and the Level 2 first and second place prize purses over the next six weeks. If no one else is able to complete the Level 2 flights, then Armadillo will win $1 million," said William Pomerantz, Sr. Director for Space Prizes at the X PRIZE Foundation. "The fact that there are multiple teams competing makes this multi-year competition even more of a success -- it's really built an industry from the ground up. All told, we estimate that all of our teams have spent the equivalent of about $20 million trying to claim the $2 million available in prizes, so this competition has really been a tremendous value to NASA and to the American public."
Saturday's flights set new records both in total propulsion and rocket endurance for privately funded and constructed vertical take-off, vertical landing rockets like those required to land on the lunar surface. These flights also build on the earlier success of the Armadillo Aerospace team in 2008, when they claimed the $350,000 first place prize for Level 1 of the Lunar Lander Challenge (which differs from Level 2 in requiring 90 seconds of flight time, rather than 180 seconds, as well as by using two flat landing surfaces, instead of a simulated lunar surface).
Two additional competitors for the prize, Masten Space Systems and Unreasonable Rocket are scheduled to make Lunar Lander Challenge attempts before the closing of this year's competition window on Oct. 31. These teams are scheduled to compete for both the Level 1 and Level 2 phases of the competition. Each level includes both first and second place prizes, with the second place prize for Level 1 worth $150,000, and the two prizes for Level 2 worth $1 million and $500,000.
For more information about X PRIZE Foundation, please visit www.xprize.org.