A Giant Leap and Crash for the Lunar Lander Challenge

The X Prize Cup's space elevators didn't fare much better, but the event provided high drama for spectators

The Wirefly X Prize Cup was a three-ring circus of space-related entertainment for the thousands of spectators who filed in to experience rocket launches and flight simulations, meet astronauts and tech dignitaries, and watch teams of engineers vie for $2 million in NASA-sponsored prize money. But although the action was brisk, all three of the NASA prizes–the $200,000 Climber Challenge, the $200,000 Tether Challenge and the $2-million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge–went unwon over the course of the weekend.

Things started off well enough on Friday, as the top contender in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, Armadillo Aerospace´s Pixel, made a successful flight and the University of Michigan´s space elevator soared to the top of the ribbon in six minutes. But disappointment reigned in both competitions on Saturday and Sunday.

Pixel, which looked like four oversize silver beach balls strung together, crashed during its second flight attempt after an early effort in which it blasted into the sky, hovered, and touched down hard on the landing pad, breaking one of its landing legs. Crew members hurried to repair the problem to enable the next flight, but the craft ended up launching at an angle and falling sharply to the ground in its final attempt. Videogame guru John Carmack (developer of the popular game Doom), who piloted the lunar lander by remote control, confirmed that it would not be able to fly again during the competition.

High desert winds and technical difficulties complicated the concurrent Space Elevator Games, in which teams attempted to make their homemade robots crawl up and down a 50-meter ribbon under the ´bots´ own power. On Friday, students from the University of Michigan were the only team to get their crawler to the top of the ribbon. They did it in six minutes, 40 seconds, but the rules stated that they had to accomplish the feat in less than a minute, crawling at least one meter per second. Most of the teams were altogether unsuccessful on Saturday because of a wild wind that blew and twisted the ribbon, so the competition was extended to Sunday. The University of Saskatchewan team came very close to winning the $150,000, with a time just two seconds shy of the contest´s limits.

On the bright side, the weekend´s competitions proved that advances in aerospace engineering are bringing us closer and closer to the lunar-lander and space-elevator goals. A clear winner is expected to emerge in each category next year, and the prize money that went unclaimed this weekend will be added to the pot. That none of the teams came out victorious is a testament to how difficult to achieve these engineering feats really are. It is rocket science, after all.

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