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X Prize Cup rocket competition flames out

The only team competing failed to complete more than two flights, leaving the challenge unmet for another year. Photos: X Prize rocket contest, expo

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M.--Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace was the lone star of the X Prize Cup for a second year in a row.

By design, the X Prize Cup is a rocket festival celebrating forward-looking technologies that the organizers hope will one day turn average people into astronauts by making space travel affordable. But in practice, the event revolves around an as-yet-unsuccessful NASA competition to develop and fly a reusable lunar lander, with total prizes worth $2 million.

Armadillo, founded by , was the only participant of nine total teams that was ready to fly a vehicle here this weekend. Even it failed to complete more than two flights, leaving the challenge unmet for another year. (Armadillo was the sole team in 2006 as well.)

"The money's on the table until someone wins," NASA spokesman Ken Davidian said during the event.

To bolster enthusiasm and attendance, the X Prize Cup was combined for the first time this year with an air show at Holloman Air Force Base, which is about an hour from the New Mexico-Texas border. Organizers expected the collaboration to draw between 50,000 and 100,000 spectators. But judging by the crowd this weekend, attendance seemed to fall well short of those numbers.

Not helping matters, the X Prize Cup's chief sponsor this year and last--cell phone retailer Wirefly--backed out of its $500,000 obligation weeks before the kickoff. This seemingly led organizers to scale back on crowd-friendly things like Jumbotron screens so that people could see what little action there was up close.

Of course, it wasn't all a dud. There were skydivers, demos of fighter jets, and an expo of new and old military planes and helicopters. There were hotdog trucks, cotton candy, and simulator games that let kids fly rockets or view the planet from Google Earth. But as for working rockets, heated competition, and the promise of a new era, the event fell short.

The weekend's one true highlight was the few minutes that Texas-based Armadillo flew its computer-controlled rocket, called the MOD, which has a liquid-oxygen engine. On Saturday, the team flew more than 90 seconds: 50 meters vertically, 50 meters horizontally and then another 50 meters down hovering over the launch pad. It descended and landed without a hitch.

After that feat, the announcer joked: "If John were playing 'Doom' he would be advancing to the next level."

But to win $350,000 in the first level of Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, Armadillo had to complete the same flight a second time within two and a half hours. On its second try Saturday, Armadillo's craft tipped over upon landing.

The team suffered similar mishaps throughout its four launch attempts, including a cracked engine that likely caused a fire on the vehicle. Event officials had to call the fire department Sunday and Armadillo's hopes at claiming the prize went up in smoke.

Overall, the festival seemed to be a metaphor for the private space industry: Despite everyone's best efforts and enthusiasm, it's not quite believable yet.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation, the event's host, said it best in opening remarks Saturday. "This is the birth of the dream."