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Unreasonable Rocket 'blue ball' vehicle
Unreasonable Rocket’s “blue ball” vehicle, designed to compete in Level One of the Lunar Lander Challenge, was on display at the Space Access ’09 conference in Phoenix earlier this month. (credit: J. Foust)

Still a challenge

Six months ago Armadillo Aerospace achieved a major milestone for both itself and NASA’s Centennial Challenges program when it won first prize in Level One in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge (LLC). After close calls in the first two years of the competition, Armadillo finally got everything to come together for their “Mod” vehicle last October, although the effort was not without some drama (see “Dueling Murphy”, The Space Review, October 27, 2008).

Lost in the celebrations over Armadillo’s accomplishment, though, is that most of the $2 million in prize money allocated by NASA for the competition is still unclaimed. In addition to the more challenging Level Two phase of the competition (at which Armadillo made a single, unsuccessful attempt last October), there is still second prize for Level One, with $150,000 on the line. And for Armadillo and the other teams competing, there’s no sign of diminished interest in the LLC, even as some aspects of the competition change.

Lost in the celebrations over Armadillo’s accomplishment, though, is that most of the $2 million in prize money allocated by NASA for the competition is still unclaimed.

At the Space Access ’09 conference in Phoenix earlier this month, seven LLC teams—Armadillo, BonNova, High Expectations Rocketry, Masten Space Systems, SpeedUp, TrueZer0, and Unreasonable Rocket—were in attendance, enough to warrant an impromptu LLC panel near the end of the conference where they traded lessons learned and plans for the future. These teams have, in general, made good progress in the last year, enough to suggest a real competition, at least for Level One’s second prize, may be taking shape for later this year.

One example is Unreasonable Rocket, a father-son team developing a vehicle powered by a single hydrogen peroxide-fueled engine. Their “blue ball” vehicle—so named for its large spherical fuel tank and blue paint job—was on display at the conference, and had a month earlier performed a series of tethered test flights, including one that lasted for 84 seconds, nearly the 90-second minimum for each leg of a Level One flight.

“I’m relatively confident that I have the performance” to do a 90-second flight, said Paul Breed of Unreasonable, noting that the 84-second test was done with less than a full propellant load. He said that there is still some “tweaking and tuning” to do, including making sure the vehicle can hold its heading.

Masten Space Systems, which has actively been developing vehicles for the LLC, is also still interested in competing for either Level One or Two. “We’re open to having a vehicle with the 750 that could do Level One,” said Masten’s Ben Brockert, referring to the 750-lbf (3,330-newton) engine the company has developed. Masten is modifying its XA-0.1B test vehicle from four smaller engines to a single 750 engine, and it or something like it would fly for Level One. “I’d like to do Level Two, but it would actually be XA-0.2”—a vehicle still under development that the company hopes to have flying by the end of the year—“to have the capability to do that.”

BonNova has made progress with its Lauryad lander design, including a 101-second test of its engine and, earlier this year, a brief tethered test flight. “We still have a lot of work to do,” said team member Bob Noteboom. “Ideally we’ll have something to fly this summer.”

Other teams are making slower progress, but still are pursuing the prize. Bob Steinke of SpeedUp says he’s throttled back work to a pace that is slower but “can be sustained indefinitely” given available resources. “Be patient, I haven’t gone away,” he said. Keith Stormo of High Expectations Rocketry described the progress his small team has made so far with the caveat that “I hate to say it, but it’s a hobby, and not a full-time business.”

While these teams are all still interested in pursuing second prize in Level One, one team that isn’t is the only team other than Armadillo that has flown in the competition, TrueZer0. The four-person team came virtually out of nowhere last year to develop a vehicle that won approval to fly at the competition, although it failed within seconds of liftoff on its only flight at the 2008 LLC.

Todd Squires said the smaller size of the second prize for Level One, coupled with the costs needed to compete, make it unlikely they’ll try again. “The numbers just don’t add up for us,” he said. “It just didn’t make a lot of sense to try and chase this prize.” However, they are planning to pursue Level Two and its much larger prize purse, although the development work needed means that they won’t be ready until 2010.

However, the experience of flying in 2008, even unsuccessfully, made it clear to them that they wanted to fly again in the competition. “People asked us if we wanted to do this again, and the answer was instantly ‘yes’,” said Squires. “It was a great experience, it was fun to do.”

Competition changes

One big change for the Lunar Lander Challenge in 2009 is how the competition itself will be run. In its first three years, the competition was a once-a-year event, held in 2006 and 2007 as a centerpiece of the X PRIZE Cup, first at Las Cruces International Airport and then at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. In 2008 the competition returned to the Las Cruces airport, but this time as a no-frills standalone event as there was no X PRIZE Cup (and even that required some last-minute effort after earlier plans to hold the event again at Holloman were cancelled by activities at the base.)

“The numbers just don’t add up for us,” TrueZero0’s Squires said of trying for second place in Level One. “It just didn’t make a lot of sense to try and chase this prize.”

In 2009, though, there will be no single competition for the LLC. “Moving forward, the concept of conducting a large common event at which all teams fly their vehicles is likely not financially sustainable for the Foundation,” the X PRIZE Foundation said in a statement on the prize web site. “As such, the fairest and most sustainable model may prove to be one where each team plays host to a crew of Judges and X PRIZE personnel at a facility of their choice.”

Although details were sketchy as of Space Access ’09, it appears that there will be a competition “season” that opens later this year, perhaps as soon as July. Teams would be able to fly on effectively home turf, minimizing the expense of travel to New Mexico, and can also fly on their own schedules, rather than be fixed to the previous once-a-year competition calendar.

That approach should go over particularly well with Armadillo Aerospace, which in the past has been somewhat critical of the event-driven nature of the competition. While Armadillo did win Level One’s first prize last year, they actually flew a complete Level One flight profile more than a year earlier, at their test site at the Oklahoma Spaceport.

Armadillo’s John Carmack indicated at Space Access that they were planning to go after Level Two as soon as possible. “We’re definitely doing the Level Two challenge this year,” he said. “Our hope is to get that done the first week or so after the season opens.” Doing it early, he said, allows them to then focus on other activities, although they would be willing to go back and do it again if another team also successfully flies Level Two during the season with better landing accuracy.

Other teams are also looking forward to flying on their home turf. “From a home base operations standpoint, I think we have probably the biggest advantage,” said Unreasonable’s Breed, noting that they already have one pad built at the Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) test site in the Mojave Desert and other infrastructure already there for testing. “I think the home field advantage would be huge for us.”

For those who like the old system, though, there may be an option. Steve Landeene of Spaceport America said they are planning to have pads installed there in time for this year’s competition. He suggested that the fledgling spaceport could host LLC flights after this October’s International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, a conference in previous years that has taken place immediately before the competition.

“People who aren’t focusing on Level One because they think it’s already going to be won,” said Carmack, “are probably making a mistake.”

Meanwhile, the handicapping for at least second prize for Level One of the LLC continues. Some at Space Access seemed all but ready to concede the prize to Unreasonable, given its technical accomplishments to date. Carmack, though, offered a cautionary note. “A lot of people seem to be writing off the Level One second prize as already won, and that’s a mistake,” he said. “Nobody here is at the point where we were at before we went certainly to the second year [of the competition, 2007] and arguably the first year.”

“It’s far from won,” he added, noting a number of technical milestones no other team has achieved that are necessary to win the prize. “People who aren’t focusing on Level One because they think it’s already going to be won are probably making a mistake.”