Armadillo Team Wins NASA’s Lunar Lander Challenge

The “Armadillo Aerospace” team was declared the winner of Level One of the 2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, which took place at Las Cruces International Airport in New Mexico last Saturday. The winning team was led by non other than John Carmack – a programmer, best known for his work on the legendary Doom and Quake computer games.

John Carmack (Credit: Armadillo Aerospace)
John Carmack
(Credit: Armadillo

The Lunar Lander Challenge, which is designed to accelerate commercial space technology as part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, is a two-level, $2 million competition, which was held this year for the third time. Out of the ten teams that initially registered to compete, only two made it to the last stage of the competition. Armadillo engineers were awarded $350,000 in prize money – the remaining amount will go to the team that succeeds to complete a level two flight in future contests. “It’s great that we won the Level One,” said Carmack, “but we’re going to keep working towards Level Two, which we can hopefully compete for again soon. We know exactly what we need to nail down and we expect to have it solved in the next couple of weeks.” Carmack, who is also the founder and lead engineer of “Armadillo Aerospace”, and his team have made an attempt at Level Two of the challenge, but were unsuccessful after experiencing several technical problems, which prevented them from completing the second flight.

The goal of the Lunar Challenge contenders is to develop a vehicle that would simulate a lunar lander, capable of ferrying payloads or humans back and forth between the lunar orbit and surface. The participating teams are required to construct a rocket-powered vehicle that would perform the following sequence of maneuvers: rise to a height of 50 meters, translate to a landing pad 100 meters away, land safely after at least 90 seconds of flight time, and then repeat the flight. The two levels differ only in the surface, on which the lander operates – level one includes smooth landing pads, while the second takes place on a replica lunar surface packed with craters and boulders, and additionally requires a 180-second flight duration.

Armadillo’s sole competitor at this year’s challenge was the Chicago-based “TrueZer0” team, whose vehicle did fly to a height of 50 meters, but wasn’t able to complete the 100 meters translation to the second pad.

The Armadillo ship in the air (Credit: Armadillo Aerospace)
The Armadillo ship
in the air
(Credit: Armadillo

This year’s contest wasn’t “Armadillo Aerospace’s” first attempt at the prize – in 2006, the company’s “Pixel” craft was the only one to fly at the X PRIZE Cup, narrowly missing winning Level One due to broken landing gear. The following year Armadillo’s vehicle successfully completed the first flight, missing the prize by a mere seven seconds. Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, said, “After three years, I’m overjoyed to congratulate John Carmack and the entire Armadillo Aerospace team on a successful flight to capture Level One in the 2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge – persistence, talent and hard work proved to be a winning combination. Though they’re not taking home an award, TrueZer0 put forth a gutsy effort as newcomers to the competition, and I look forward to seeing what they’re able to accomplish next year. We are thankful to NASA’s Centennial Challenges program for providing the purse funding and for their support of this important challenge.”

The Lunar Lander Challenge is managed by the X PRIZE Foundation and supported by NASA, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and the Northrop Grumman Corporation. The competition has sparked a great deal of interest over the years, and Armadillo’s pioneer success is considered to be a significant milestone in the race to space, bringing the commercial space industry one step closer to becoming an everyday reality.

“By completing multiple flights in the matter of a few hours, Armadillo Aerospace demonstrated a remarkable level of rocket engine reusability, a feature that will be essential to more efficient operations on the Moon and beyond. The TrueZer0 team, a newcomer to rocket development, deserves a lot of credit for flying their vehicle to 50 meters on its first untethered flight. Armadillo and TrueZer0 represent the spirit of innovation that NASA hopes to encourage with the Centennial Challenges program,” said Andy Petro, Manager, Centennial Challenges Program, NASA. “No longer will space be relegated to government agencies,” added Steve Landeene, Executive Director, New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

TFOT has covered Armadillo Aerospace lunar vehicle in late 2007 as well as a number of other unique technologies, aimed at the future of the commercial space industry. You are welcome to read an article about “XCOR Aerospace”, which has recently announced the development of what could be the first “consumer-oriented” suborbital spaceship. Be also sure to check out our coverage of the Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association, whose team is the first to submit a due date for sending a robot to the moon in the Google Lunar X competition.

You can find more information on this year’s challenge and watch videos of the competition here.

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