Lunar landers disappoint in the desert

If private industry is going to lead the way for the next man on the moon, he may have to wait awhile.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
2 min read
LAS CRUCES, N.M.--We've got a long way to go before putting more people on the moon, particularly if private industry is the sole innovator.

Here at the second-annual Wirefly X Prize Cup, one of the marquee events was the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, a $2 million contest for private companies to show off and test new space craft technology that could simulate landing on the moon.

One of the signs of ill-preparedness was that four of the five teams originally set to compete Friday dropped out.

Armadillo Aerospace, a Mesquite, Texas-based research outfit and the sole competitor, got off the ground Friday in the first-round of the contest and even flew vertically to specification, but its legs buckled upon landing, causing a fire. Armadillo plans to refit the computer-controlled vehicle, "Pixel," by borrowing parts from its second craft, "Texel," for a second try at prize money on Saturday.

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The Lunar Lander Challenge was designed to test the design of rocket-propelled moon vehicles, a la Apollo. The contest required Armadillo to fly at least 50 meters in altitude and then land vertically within 100 meters of the takeoff point, thereby simulating a landing on the lunar surface.

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission, was present at the X Prize Cup on Friday and said building new space vehicles to land on the moon will ultimately help the United States explore Mars.

"The moon is really a learning place to develop technology we need for Mars," said Aldrin. "That's what the Lunar Lander Challenge is all about, promoting that idea."

Armadillo, which professionally is developing manned suborbital vehicles, built two computer-controlled LOX/ethanol rockets for this competition. Pixel and Texel are nearly all aluminum built with four sphere tanks. They have carbon chamber engines wrapped in carbon fiber for strength. They're fueled with 190-proof ethanol, something akin to alcohol but not made for digesting. Another internal tank in both rockets takes liquid oxygen.

Before taking off, Armadillo engineers said they were having problems with navigating the rockets, so they installed an external camera on the vehicles to land it properly. "We almost didn't make it. It takes 38 flights to iron out the bugs," said one Armadillo engineer who has volunteered on X Prize Cup project.

Aldrin summed up the task of building next generation lunar landing vehicles by saying: "Space is something that will take a lot of time."