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No winner for NASA lunar challenge

Armadillo Aerospace, the space company founded by "Doom" creator John Carmack, was the lone competitor in NASA's contest, but flamed out in the end.

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M.--The $2 million NASA-sponsored Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge ended Sunday with no winner and a call to the fire department.

Armadillo Aerospace, the space company founded by "Doom" creator John Carmack, was the lone competitor in NASA's contest, which calls on teams to build a lunar vehicle and then simulate a 90-to-180-second lunar flight. On Sunday morning, Armadillo flew one 91-second flight successfully, but as it was preparing to launch a second time to complete the challenge, the team discovered a crack in its engine.

Photos: Gearing up for the X Prize Cup

The team tried to fix the damage before a second-round launch. But Armadillo's rocket vehicle caught fire and officials had to call the fire department to extinguish the flame, according to a representative from the X Prize Foundation, host of the NASA challenge here at the third annual X Prize Cup. No one was hurt.

Carmack was given the option to fly again Sunday evening after the end of X Prize Cup expo, but he declined. "They're done for the year," said X Prize Cup representative Jean Levasseur.

The fire ends two years of unsuccessful attempts at the lunar challenge, which is aimed at jumpstarting NASA's own efforts to send astronauts back to the moon after a nearly 30-year hiatus. Though the X Prize Cup expected nine teams to compete in the challenge this year, only Armadillo was ready to fly and had met Federal Aviation Administration safety requirements--similar to 2006's event.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the event host the X Prize Foundation, said that the cost for NASA to launch a vehicle into space is $1 billion, so the goal for the lunar vehicle challenge is to "demonstrate reusability." That's why Armadillo and other competitors are required to complete a flight twice within two and a half hours.

Armadillo demonstrated two times this year that it can fly and land its craft MOD once, but it couldn't do complete the feat twice within the allotted time.

On Saturday, Armadillo almost won the money by finishing the first part of the challenge--flying its craft 50 meters vertically from the launch pad, 50 meters horizontally, then descending to the flat surface. But on its second attempt, the craft had a trust-vector problem upon landing and it tipped over in the last five seconds of flight. As a result, Armadillo had to replace its engine and actuator to fly again Sunday.

Early Sunday morning, Armadillo Aerospace flew a successful 92-second flight of its computer-controlled rocket vehicle, accomplishing the first of two parts again. But that's when the trouble started again.

"To fly rockets is really difficult. We have to go with the flow and keep our fingers crossed for Armadillo," Ken Davidion, NASA's executive in charge of the contest money, said before the fire started.

But if they didn't win this year, he reassured rivals for next year's challenge.

"The money's on the table until someone wins," he said.