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28 October 2008

Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge

Armadillo Aerospace has won the Level One portion of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge! The flew at Las Cruces International Airport on October 25, 2008, and earned the $350,000 in prize money. While they made an attempt to win Level Two on the 26, they weren't able to pull off a double victory, leaving $1.65 million worth of prize money on the table. Check out some highlights from the first day of competition.

Seven seconds prevented Armadillo Aerospace from winning the second year of competition in the two million dollar Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Over two days, Armadillo Aerospace attempted four times to achieve the two flights necessary to win the $350,000 Level I competition. Officials expected them to compete in both the Level I and Level II competitions this weekend, worth $1,350,000 in total first place prize purses. 

“They nearly made it in their second attempt,” said Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, CEO and Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation. “There were more than 85,000 spectators willing them to succeed, as well as the officials and people working on the other teams. The persistence Armadillo has shown is impressive and deserving of recognition. I want to thank the team for their enthusiastic participation and I hope they will continue their important work!”

Armadillo used the MOD-1 vehicle for all four launch windows in the Level I competition, with each window requiring two successful flights. None of the four prize winning attempts were successful, and having reached the maximum number of attempts for Level I, Armadillo ruled out any attempts for Level II. 

Saturday morning’s attempt did not leave the ground due to an igniter problem caused by contamination in the feed lines. Saturday afternoon’s first flight, however, was perfect. The igniter problem reappeared in the return flight and blew a hole in the side of the chamber, preventing it from hovering the required 90 seconds. The landing was aborted with seven seconds left as a safety precaution, disqualifying the flight.

Sunday morning’s first flight was again perfect. The second flight left the ground briefly but was also aborted by the team for safety reasons related to earlier problems. 

The team continued to experience problems during the last attempt of Sunday afternoon. The engine exploded on ignition, resulting in a small fire and the flight was aborted. The team followed emergency procedures and fire engines were called in, however no one was hurt. 

“This weekend, we’ve had more problems than we’ve had in the last six months. We know what went wrong, but not why,” said Neil Milburn, Vice President, Armadillo Aerospace. “The Cup has given us an opportunity to show what we can do in front of multiple audiences, which we would not have been able to do otherwise. We know we’ll be back again, and we’ll nail it next time.”

Armadillo Aerospace is led by John Carmack, who is widely recognized in the video game industry for the creation of games like Doom and Quake. He started Armadillo in 2000 to compete for the Ansari X PRIZE, which was later won by Scaled Composites and SpaceShipOne. Armadillo made a smooth transition from suborbital flight to lunar landers when the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge was announced as one of NASA’s Centennial Challenges. In 2006, Armadillo’s “Pixel” was the only craft to fly at the X PRIZE Cup, and narrowly missed the winning the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge due to broken landing gear. 

“This was a weekend of outstanding competition,” said Dr. William Gaubatz, Chief Judge of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. “We believe Armadillo set some records in terms of reusability. We hope they carry on and inspire other teams to shoot for the prize and new records.”

The third annual X PRIZE Cup was held at Holloman Air Force Base on October 27 and 28, 2007. It was the first space expo ever in which aircraft and rockets flew at the same event, and is the result of a unique partnership between Holloman Air Force Base, the State of New Mexico and the X PRIZE Foundation. In addition to the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, the 85,000 people in attendance were able to see a state of the art air show with F-117s, F-22s, the Wings of Blue Jump team, acres of static aircraft and space displays, and much, much more.