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Xoie liftoff
Masten Space Systems’ Xoie vehicle lifts off as part of its bid to qualify for Level Two of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. (credit: X PRIZE Foundation)

A wild finish for the Lunar Lander Challenge

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On the last week of October much of the space industry focused its attention on Cape Canaveral and the launch of NASA’s Ares 1-X, a suborbital prototype of the Ares 1 rocket planned by the space agency to launch the Orion crew capsule later next decade. That attention was understandable given the state of the program’s development and its uncertain political future: a lot was riding on that two-minute launch.

Overshadowed by the Ares 1-X flight that week was an event on the opposite side of the country: the final week of the 2009 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge (NGLLC), a competition that is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program to develop vertical takeoff, vertical landing vehicles like those that one day may touch down on the Moon. For those who were paying attention, the event provided arguablt far more drama and excitement—and even controversy—than the Ares 1-X launch. And, in the long run, the outcome might prove to be as significant, if not more so, than that single launch from the Cape.

Down to the wire

Entering the last week of October—also the last week of the 2009 competition—two teams had already qualified for prizes: Armadillo Aerospace in Level Two (see “Playing the waiting (and winning) game”, The Space Review, September 14, 2009) and Masten Space Systems in Level One, after an earlier flight attempt short (see “A Xombie over Mojave”, The Space Review, September 21, 2009). But they couldn’t claim the prizes until that hectic last week, with three teams—BonNova, Masten, and Unreasonable Rocket—planning flight attempts in Levels One and Two.

“From what I saw, people just offered their services, even when it was not at all clear whether the judges would allow a flight,” Masten spokesman Doug Gram said of the outpouring of volunteer labor to help repair Xoie.

Going into the final week Armadillo’s Level Two flight seemed to be the more secure of the two: after all, no one had successfully flown even a Level One flight before Armadillo made its successful Level Two attempt on September 12. Level Two has twice the flight time (180 seconds per leg) of Level One, and also requires a landing on simulated lunar terrain. Masten’s successful Level One flight, with its highly accurate landings, though provided an opening, as landing accuracy serves as the tiebreaker. Masten’s own Level One flight, though, could be bumped from second place (Armadillo claimed first place last year) if another team could perform an even more accurate landing.

BonNova, a late entrant into the competition, dropped out just before its planned flights when they deemed their Lauryad vehicle not ready. This left Masten Space Systems next up to attempt Level Two with its XA-0.1E, or “Xoie” (pronounced like “Zoë”), vehicle. Masten was ready to go Wednesday, the first day of its two-day window, but the vehicle was not: several attempts to fly on Wednesday were scrubbed because of what the team called “communications and plumbing problems”.

By Thursday afternoon, near the end of that two-day window, those problems were resolved, and Xoie took off. Just after landing on the first leg of its flight, though, a fire broke out on the vehicle, traced to a small leak from the vehicle’s tank of isopropyl alcohol (IPA). The fire was quickly extinguished and the vehicle did not suffer major damage, but it was not in condition to make a return leg. It appeared that Masten would not be able to claim Level Two this year.

However, a judging decision to give Masten one additional flight attempt on Friday morning gave the team new life. The team worked overnight to repair Xoie and find a workaround for the IPA leak. The team got assistance from several volunteers, including members of two competing NGLLC teams, Bob Steinke of SpeedUp and Keith Stormo of High Expectations.

“A lot of people had come to watch the flights because they are rocket and space enthusiasts,” explained Masten spokesman Doug Graham. “From what I saw, people just offered their services, even when it was not at all clear whether the judges would allow a flight. It was truly a spontaneous outpouring from fellow rocketeers and was something to witness.”

By Friday morning Xoie was repaired (with a trash can serving as a catch basin for leaking IPA to prevent another fire) and ready to fly again. Xoie flew perfectly and without fires, although some glitches between the two flight legs meant that they finished the second flight with only about six minutes left in their 135-minute window. After judges performed measurements, the clock would restart, and all the Masten team would have to do is lift the vehicle from its pad onto its trailer and secure it.

Even that, though, was not without drama. The pickup truck towing the trailer got stuck in the sand at the Mojave, California, test site for a moment, unable to move into position next to the vehicle. The pickup did get unstuck, though, and Xoie was secured on its trailer with a few minutes to spare. Xoie’s landing accuracy was about 19 centimeters, compared to 85 centimeters for Armadillo’s Scorpius vehicle. Masten qualified for first place—unless one last team scooped them.

Just after Masten’s flight, the last NGLLC team to fly this year, Unreasonable Rocket, made its attempts at a site north of Mojave. The father-son team hoped to go after both Level One and Level Two, but fell short in both, although its “blue ball” Level One vehicle came within five seconds of a complete leg when it ran out of propellant.

Judging controversy

The end of the NGLLC did not come without some controversy about Masten’s flight attempt. It appeared to some observers that Masten got more time than allowed by the rules with a flight attempt on Friday, its third day, when the competition windows are scheduled to be only two days long.

Armadillo founder John Carmack send out an email the afternoon after Masten’s flight attempt complaining about that decision. “I don’t hold anything against Masten for using an additional time window that has been offered, since we wouldn’t have passed it up if we were in their situation, but I do think this was a mistake on the judges’ part,” he wrote.

“We thought we were done with a time period left remaining, but I wasn’t about to give up without exploring every possible chance for trying again, so I asked how we could schedule our remaining time period,” Masten CEO Dave Masten said.

“I don’t hold anything against Masten for using an additional time window that has been offered, since we wouldn’t have passed it up if we were in their situation, but I do think this was a mistake on the judges’ part,” Carmack wrote.

The judging decision had its roots in changes in the rules for this year’s competition, where teams could schedule flight attempts at their home sites, and the rules that date back to past years, when the competition was held once a year at a neutral site, according to Will Pomerantz, senior director for space projects at the X PRIZE Foundation, which runs the NGLLC. The new rules allowed each team to schedule up to two “prize-winning attempt visits” per vehicle, which nominally could last two days. Each visit was also limited to two “time periods”, the two-hour, fifteen-minute period where the vehicle had to carry out the flights, a rule that dates back to previous years’ competitions. In the past, though, teams had been granted additional time periods at the discretion of the judges, up to a total of five.

That rule came into play during Masten’s Level Two attempt, when technical problems kept the vehicle from taking off on both flight attempts on their first day and the morning attempt on the second day. Each time they asked the judges for a new time period and had that request granted. When their Thursday afternoon attempt was cut short by the vehicle fire after landing on the first leg, Masten still had one time period left, but had run out of time on the second day to fly again, even if the vehicle was in suitable condition to do so.

Masten then asked the judges if they could use their remaining time period on the next day, even though it was outside of the original two-day window under the competition rules. After five hours of deliberation, the judges agreed, citing the past records from the competition and, according to Pomerantz, “both the spirit of the competition and the likelihood that each potential outcome would further the state of the industry and the goals of the prize.”

Carmack said in an email last week that he understood the explanation for the judging decision, but was still not happy with it. “The prize rules did give the judges the ability to give Masten an extra, unscheduled, free prize winning attempt, so I do not think they have violated the team agreements,” he wrote. “I do think it was completely unfair to let them try again after they had two full days of failure. If we had a night at our shop and another day of attempts on any previous year, we would have cleaned up the prizes earlier.”

Dave Masten of Masten Space Systems (fourth from left) and Phil Eaton of Armadillo Aerospace (fourth from right) stand with various officials, including NASA administrator Charles Bolden (second from left) at an awards ceremony November 5th in Washington, DC. (credit: X PRIZE Foundation)

Looking ahead

Masten’s Level Two success means that all the remaining prize money in the $2-million competition has now been claimed: Masten won $1 million for first place in Level Two and $150,000 for second place in Level One, while Armadillo won $500,000 for second place in Level Two, on top of the $350,000 they got last year for winning Level One. NASA and the X PRIZE Foundation honored the teams in a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington last week.

“We now have enough cash to get to regular revenue from doing suborbital flights, and possibly even profitability,” Masten said.

The end of the NGLLC leaves two companies, Armadillo and Masten, in good position to move ahead with suborbital vehicle development efforts. Armadillo has already started a series of “boosted hop” flights using its Mod vehicle to progressively higher altitudes: up to 900 meters so far, with plans to double that before reaching the altitude ceiling for flights from its home base at the Caddo Mills, Texas, airport. Carmack said they would then be “stretching the flight parameters” to increase the reduced-gravity time in flight and perform other tests, as well as fly some “early scientific payloads”. Later Armadillo may do some intermediate-altitude flights before going on to Spaceport America in New Mexico for high-altitude flights.

Masten, meanwhile, plans to continue flying both Xoie and its Level One vehicle, Xombie. “Xombie and Xoie are perfect vehicles to test some riskier things with such as in-flight engine relights,” explained Dave Masten. The company will also be working on a new vehicle with an aeroshell. The $1.15 million in prize money is being plowed back into the company for R&D work. “We now have enough cash to get to regular revenue from doing suborbital flights, and possibly even profitability,” he said.

The prize awards may also provide a boost for Centennial Challenges overall. It has been a banner month for NASA’s prize program: in addition to the $1.65 million awarded for the Lunar Lander Challenge, three teams won a combined $750,000 on October 18 in the Regolith Excavation Challenge, a competition to demonstrate technologies for digging up lunar soil. And just last Friday the LaserMotive team won $900,000 in the Power Beaming Challenge (part of the Space Elevator Games) held at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Advocates of prizes hope that these recent successes will encourage Congress to appropriate additional money for Centennial Challenges, something it has been reticent to do in the last couple of years. “Prize money is an efficient and effective incentive,” Congressman Ralph Hall (R-TX), ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee, said last week. “Since NASA first proposed the use of innovation prizes to encourage competition, our Science and Technology Committee has supported the concept.”

Already there has been informal discussion on the Internet about a “Level Three” of the LLC, with ideas ranging from extended flying times to not allowing teams to refuel between flight legs. Pomerantz said that the X PRIZE Foundation would be interested in working with NASA on a follow-on competition. “I know NASA was very pleased with the results of the competition, so there is certainly a level of interest in a follow-on prize,” he said. “It remains to be seen, though, whether funding will be available.”

“The real prizes are the doors that are opening for us now,” said Masten.

Ironically, one of the main reasons for doing the competition in the first place—demonstrating technologies that could be used for future lunar landers—seems to have been lost in the shuffle. While several teams have been actively developing and flying vehicles for the NGLLC, a group at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) has been working on its own lander prototype to test hovering and landing, as described in a Science@NASA article. (Officials at MSFC weren’t able to respond by press time to questions about the project.)

For the two winning teams, though, the NGLLC has been a good experience as they look ahead to bigger and better things. Asked if participating in the competition was worthwhile, Carmack agreed, “although the ending has left a very sour taste in my mouth.”

Masten, meanwhile, said it “quite possibly” would have been worth the effort even if the company hadn’t won any prize money. “The real prizes are the doors that are opening for us now.”