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Lunar Lander challenge illustration
An illustration of the Lunar Lander Analog Challenge, planned for this October at the X Prize Cup in New Mexico. (credit: X Prize Foundation)

Space prize confidential

NASA unveiled its biggest and best space prize ever ten days ago, at the National Space Society’s biggest citizen space event ever, ISDC 2006 in Los Angeles. NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale announced the space agency’s contribution of $2 million in prize money to the Lunar Lander Analog Challenge. The competition will be managed by the X Prize Foundation and first staged at X Prize Cup 2006 in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The X Prize press release handed out after the announcement spoke of a richer pot: “X Prize Foundation and NASA offer $2.5 million Lunar Lander Challenge.”

The P.T. Barnum of space, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, upped the ante even more, saying that the X Prize Cup will have over $3 million in prizes, dozens of rocket-powered flights, spaceships you can see and touch before and after flight—and then declared team registration for the Lunar Lander Challenge “officially open.”

If all you knew about the X Prize was that a cute little homebuilt spaceship won $10 million by flying to space without any government money, you might get the impression that NASA will soon award millions in cash prizes to low-budget teams that could beat the space agency back to the Moon. That impression is not entirely correct, but it’s not entirely wrong, either.

NASA’s Centennial Challenges office wants to dole out prize money for contests that develop and demonstrate useful technology aligned with NASA’s goals, but it can only do so when an outside organization steps up to manage the contest. It may be true that similar sums are available from NASA for solar sails and orbital spaceflight and planetary landers, but it will take serious help from outside to make any of these NASA visions real.

If all you knew about the X Prize was that a cute little homebuilt spaceship won $10 million by flying to space without any government money, you might get the impression that NASA will soon award millions in cash prizes to low-budget teams that could beat the space agency back to the Moon.

Instead of landing on the Moon, Lunar Lander Challenge hopefuls will fly remotely-piloted rocket-powered vehicles that demonstrate technology useful for Moon landings and takeoffs. (And, coincidentally, Earth landings and takeoffs, but don’t tell the guys at the shuttle office.) Level 1 is 90 seconds of rocket-powered flight, 50 meters high and 100 meters away to a flat landing pad, plus the same trip back. Level 2 is 180 seconds in the air and a successful landing on a simulated moonscape, uneven and possibly boulder-strewn, plus the trip back, another 180 seconds of rocket-powered flight. Level 1’s first prize is $350,000 and second prize is $150,000. Level 2’s first prize is $1.25 million, with a second prize of $500,000 and a third prize of $250,000.

Some highly interested parties—Armadillo Aerospace, the odds-on favorite, and Masten Space Systems, the dark horse competitor—have followed the contest closely since it was first proposed at last year’s X Prize Cup: commenting on draft rules and straining the brains of X Prize officials as they struggled to design a competition that can be won, but not too easily, and that is exciting, but safe enough for a public event.

At Space Access ’06, John Carmack said Armadillo’s plan is to take the top prize in both levels. Armadillo may even build its next big ship to compete in Level 2, the sort of vehicle that could carry a person to suborbital space and back.

Dave Masten reorganized his company’s workflow, delaying work on its big center engine to concentrate on the eight smaller attitude-control rockets so he can give Armadillo a serious run for the NASA prize money. Masten Space Systems will relocate to Mojave next month and begin tethered flight tests of its XA-1.0 to prepare for the contest.

At an early April symposium optimistically called “Space Billionaires: Educating Future Entrepreneurs,” Peter Diamandis said October’s X Prize Cup would feature eight or nine teams vying for $2.5 million in lunar-lander prizes.

So who are the other six or seven contenders? In February, Diamandis predicted “folks like Armadillo, Masten Space, and SpaceDev would be interested,” and lately he’s mentioned talks with Jeff Bezos about unveiling Blue Origin’s super-secret ship at the X Prize Cup. But so far, only Armadillo and Masten have gone public with interest in pursuing the prizes, and they were the only contenders acknowledged in the X Prize Cup promo video shown at ISDC.

Randa Milliron says Interorbital Systems may enter the competition, but the X Prize advance scout who visited Interorbital’s Mojave lab was skittish about their technology. “Our propellants are corrosive, but they are not toxic,” Milliron emphasizes. “That’s an important distinction. They are the ‘green’ substitutes for highly toxic UDMH, nitrogen tetroxide, and hydrazine.”

Paul Breed has also expressed interest in competing. He’s testing his control theory with a styrofoam mockup and cold-gas thrusters in his garage, while awaiting word from the X Prize on how to enter the contest, and meanwhile wondering if it’s possible to get a launch license between now and contest time. (Armadillo and Masten already have theirs in the works.)

TGV Rockets, an original X Prize contestant with its vertical takeoff-vertical landing MICHELLE-B, is still designing and doesn’t plan to bend metal until the design is perfected. The challenge is not something that fits TGV’s business strategy, says founder Pat Bahn.

So, that’s two public, two somewhat under the radar, one definite “no”, and two more names dropped but unconfirmed by the named. Since the official announcement hit the news wire services, the number of interested parties has gone up to 25 or so, according to X Prize Communications Director Ian Murphy, but that’s all he’ll say until contestants choose to go public.

X Prize Cup’s Lunar Lander Challenge looks like NASA’s best hope for the public inspiration value that’s part and parcel of the space agency’s goals for Centennial Challenges.

Meanwhile, the final rules are still not released, pending one last NASA review, and, in fact, team registration was still not quite open by close of business Friday, seven days after the announcement. The original May 15 registration deadline (today) will be slipped to accommodate the delay, according to an email sent last week by X Prize Director of Space Projects Will Pomerantz to a select list of semi-pre-registered contestants and persistent others.

That list didn’t include me, although I did write and speak to Will about registering a team. In truth, my team fell apart after only two days of kidding around half-seriously, and a vivid nightmare by our Chief Designer Tim Pickens, another veteran of the original X Prize.

In this bad dream, Tim was working long hours on a lunar lander while agonizing about missing his family. The nightmare was no doubt inspired by a visit earlier that day to the Mojave Airport test facilities under construction by his Alabama company, Orion Propulsion, for AirLaunch LLC’s QuickReach DARPA project. No photos allowed, but there’s a nine-meter vertical test stand going up and a vacuum test chamber for really big rocket engines, among other things.

Tim’s nightmare also has roots in memory. He served a tour of duty in Mojave away from his family a few years ago, as leader of in-house propulsion design in the early days of SpaceShipOne, and he also led X Prize team HARC, which failed to raise the money to build its ship. Some of Tim’s hobbies, like rocketizing bicycles and now a pickup truck, don’t always make the best impression on prospective customers, but it’s hard for him to resist having fun while making a living in the rocket business.

However, after two days of having his sanity questioned and one revelatory nightmare, Tim sent regrets to the team and the X Prize Cup. This sort of thing could explain why there are no good inventions on “American Inventor”.

Anyway, the forwarded email says that interested teams should request a mutual non-disclosure agreement with X Prize (Document A) and a waiver that allows X Prize to talk about the team’s technology with the FAA and NASA (Document B). When the rules are finalized, they’ll be sent to all interested parties. When Document A is signed and returned to the X Prize, registration forms and data packet (Document C) and master team agreement (Document D) will be sent. If all documents, and the registration fee (not specified), are received in good order before June 15, the team will be signed up.

This procedure is a bit more complicated than other Centennial Challenges listed at www.centennialchallenges.nasa.gov, where rules for active contests are posted, and registration procedures are clear and open to the public. The X Prize-managed contest is the first Keystone-level challenge, with prizes from $250,000 up to $3 million, and the competition may be the most complex management job taken on by a Centennial Challenges partner organization.

Winning a space prize is not easy, and coming up with the prize purse is no simple trick either, but it seems that one of the most expensive and difficult parts of the equation may actually be managing the competition.

Until the Lunar Lander Analog Challenge announcement, only Alliance-level prizes of $250,000 or less had officially recognized prize-management partners. So far, only the Spaceward Foundation (www.elevator2010.org) has managed to put NASA money on the table and hold competitions. A $50,000 prize for the Tether Challenge and the same for the Climber Challenge went unclaimed in 2005, but the purses will be carried over to this year, giving each contest $200,000 to divide among successful contenders. That $400,000 may account for some of the “more than $3 million” that Peter Diamandis promises for the 2006 X Prize Cup, now that Spaceward Foundation is considering an invitation to stage its competitions in Las Cruces this year.

Last year’s Climber Challenge was almost won by a device built in a dorm room. While space elevators are not currently part of NASA’s exploration architecture, some of the components like strong tethers and beamed power are. In 2007, Spaceward will inaugurate its third NASA-funded contest, the Telerobotic Challenge: can you and your robot construct a fuel line in a remote location with a 45-minute transmission delay? Useful, to be sure, and important, certainly, but even Spaceward Foundation’s Ben and Meekk Shelef are quick to admit that the Elevator Games can be boring to watch.

Nor do any of the other Alliance-level challenges promise much in the way of visual entertainment or crowd thrills, worthy as they may be. X Prize Cup’s Lunar Lander Challenge looks like NASA’s best hope for the public inspiration value that’s part and parcel of the space agency’s goals for Centennial Challenges.

Winning a space prize is not easy, and coming up with the prize purse is no simple trick either, but it seems that one of the most expensive and difficult parts of the equation may actually be managing the competition. Hats off to all who take on that Challenge—and, fingers crossed for luck, let the games begin!


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