Armadillo Aerospace, led by id Software founder John Carmack, successfully flew its Scorpius vehicle twice in two hours between a pair of landing pads to qualify for the $1 million top prize in NASA’s Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. The milestone event paves the way for higher-altitude flights by the Armadillo Aerospace team, and demonstrated the value of prizes to stimulate innovation. Other entrants in the competition will have the opportunity over the next several weeks to accomplish the same feat, but the successful flights mean it is certain NASA will be giving away a $1 million check before year’s end.
In order to meet the requirements of Level 2 of the Lunar Lander Challenge, the Scorpius vehicle had to ascend to a height of 50 meters, translate horizontally to a landing pad 50 meters away, land safely on a rocky lunar-replica surface after at least 180 seconds of flight time, and then repeat the flight. The flights of Scorpius, which weighs about 1900 pounds fully fueled, took place September 12th at the Caddo Mills Airport in Texas, where Armadillo Aerospace’s facilities are based.
John Carmack, head of Armadillo Aerospace, stated, “Since the Lunar Lander Challenge is quite demanding in terms of performance, with a few tweaks our Scorpius vehicle actually has the capability to travel all the way to space. We’ll be moving quickly to do higher-altitude tests, and we can go up to about 6000 ft. here at our home base in Texas before we’ll have to head to New Mexico where we can really push the envelope. We already have scientific payloads from universities lined up to fly as well, so this will be an exciting next few months for commercial spaceflight.”
Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, which manages the prize on behalf of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, said, “Carmack and the entire Armadillo team made it look easy… an overnight success after 4 years of hard work. Congratulations on two perfect flights. Now we’ll need to see if any other teams attempt the Level-2, Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. If no one does, then Armadillo will win $1 million in purse cash. I’m hopeful that this success will allow policymakers to see the power and success of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program.”
Brett Alexander, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, added, “Congratulations to Armadillo Aerospace, NASA, and the X PRIZE Foundation for their excellent teamwork in making this week’s Lunar Lander Challenge milestone possible. This competition shows exactly how much NASA can benefit from close engagement with the commercial spaceflight sector.”
Yesterday’s event builds on the earlier success of the Armadillo Aerospace team in 2008, when they claimed the $350,000 first place prize for Level 1 of the Lunar Lander Challenge (which differs from Level 2 in requiring 90 seconds of flight time rather than 180 seconds).
Two additional competitors for the prize, Masten Space Systems and Unreasonable Rocket are scheduled to make prize attempts before the closing of this year’s competition window on October 31st. These teams are scheduled to compete for both the Level 1 and Level 2 phases of the competition. Each level includes both first and second place prizes, with the second place prize for Level 1 worth $150,000, and the two prizes for Level 2 worth $1 million and $500,000.
Image credit: William Pomerantz/X PRIZE Foundation