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Lunar rover flies, then falls

Armadillo Aerospace is the lone competitor in NASA's $2 million Lunar Lander Challenge and it almost won some money Saturday.

Armadillo Aerospace's MOD
Stefanie Olsen/CNET Networks

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M.--Armadillo Aerospace, the space company of Doom creator John Carmack, impressed the crowd here Saturday by flying and landing a privately built lunar spacecraft over 90 seconds. By doing so, Armadillo completed the first of two parts of a NASA challenge worth $350,000 to simulate a flight on the moon.

On its second try, however, Armadillo didn't fare as well. The spacecraft, called the MOD, flew 50 meters vertically from the launch pad, then traversed 50 meters horizontally--required tasks of the first level of competition. But five seconds before landing on the flat-surface launch pad, the MOD tipped over in a cloud of dust.

Met with a crowd of sighs, the fall left no winner on the first day of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, the main event at the 2007 X Prize Cup space and air show.

"It has two more tries tomorrow," said Doug Comstock, director of NASA's innovative partnership program, which runs the space agency's series of grant challenges to support new technology. "We have two big checks ready and we hope to give them away then."

All eyes are on Armadillo because it's once again the lone competitor in the lunar challenge, which was supposed to have nine teams flying this year. Last year, Armadillo emerged as the only team up to snuff with Federal Aviation Administration safety requirements and was technically ready to launch its vehicle. This year, the same thing happened. Teams like Denver-based Micro-Space weren't able to meet the FAA safety standards, and one mystery team dropped out before the challenge.

In all, NASA is putting up $2 million toward the challenge. In level one, it will award $350,000 for the first team to fly the 50 meters and land on a flat surface, twice, and $150,000 to the second team that can perform the task. In level two, NASA will award $1 million to the craft that can fly 50 meters vertically, 50 meters horizontally, and then land on a rocky surface much like the moon--also twice. Second place wins $500,000.

Armadillo will have four attempts at the money. Its first flight Saturday morning was "scrubbed," or thwarted because of ignition trouble. The craft experienced the same ignition issue during the second attempt, but the team fixed it quickly and got off the ground. Armadillo has a backup MOD to compete Sunday, or it may put last year's vehicle Pixel up to the second-level challenge. Officials aren't sure how Armadillo will proceed.

Armadillo's MOD, 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide, is a computer-controlled liquid oxygen rocket vehicle. At launch, it weighs 1,400 pounds, but has a thrust of 1,800 pounds. It's guided by a global positioning system, among other sensors. And the company said that the MOD is a precursor to modular vehicles it plans to use to send tourists into surborbital space one day.

But it's a long road ahead.

"The rocket business is a very hard business," said James Bouer, a welder for Armadillo who was at the event. "Murphy was bashing on all of us this year," he said, referring to Murphy's law.