It’s cold out here in the desert at the Wirefly X Prize Cup event, waiting for the Northrop lunar lander challenge

Posted at 16:00h, 21 October

With the event closed and everyone going home it is now about 30min before they switch off the internet connection (unfortunately it occured slightly earlier, delaying this posting) here at Wirefly X Prize Cup at Las Cruces International airport in New Mexico.

It has been a frenzied two days for those of us covering the various attempted and actual rocket launches, stalled and rapid ribbon climbers, announcements about  Rocket Racing League and other stuff and various presentations including those from the NASA astronauts…

Click below to see the rest of this X Prize Cup live coverage blog and scroll down to read from the bottom to find out what happened during the course of the event. NASA astronauts (pictured below is Columbia/STS-98 Nuerolab mission specialist astronaut Kay  Hire) talking about their job, working in space. Something one day, if the dreamers here at X Prize get their way, a lot more of us will be doing.


The space elevator games took a turn for the better after a slow start on the event’s first day and despite some persistant wind the University of Saskatchewan and a US high school team did well with both teams potentially achieving the 198ft/min (1m/s) speed; an objective the teams had to meet to be considered for prizes. But even with those successes it was slow going with team equipment strewn across the prep area around the crane.

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Oddly enough the elevator games’ zone of the airport was supposed to be a hard hat area but some of the contractors did, and no one else bothered. Another odd thing was the use of high powered lamps despite it being a very sunny and hot day. Some of the teams did use solar power from the Sun but the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team (USST) used lamps and got dramatic acceleration from their climber. 


In this picture above the USST manouver the huge ground based mirror into place that will reflect the light from the three powerful lamps they are using to provide power to the climber. Tomorrow the USST team will be able to watch the microwave power teams try out. They were unable to make an attempt at X Prize Cup due to potential interference with the airport and X Prize Cup event’s radio needs. I will report back on the Sunday attempts by blog and a story by Sunday evening.

Someone who doesn’t need to wait for a space elevator is Anousheh Ansari who likes to be known as the world’s first female private space explorer. Of course Anousheh flew to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz rocket for an eight day stay back in September. Signing photographs of herself in her mission space suit for donations at the “donations tent” Ansari seemed a bit reluctant to give interviews.

Certainly “her people” were being a bit defensive and when I got my chance to ask my one question to the Iranian born self-made multi-millionaire telecoms engineer, after waiting half an hour, I knew this was one person who was not keen on talking to the media, or maybe it was my question? But you can read her answer about her investment in the Explorer suborbital vehicle in an upcoming issue of Flight.


Rushing between the space elevator competition, interview opportunities with “private space explorers”, presentations in the Learning Center tent and getting to the Jumbrotron screen in time to watch the latest attempt by the Armadillo Aerospace team leaves you somewhat dizzy and not entirely sure if you’ve got everything done and exploited every opporuntity that could have presented itself.

But I always make sure I have some spare time for astronauts and made sure I got an interview, well, a quick chat, with fellow Briton and NASA astronaut and deputy associate administrator for exploration and space operations Michael Foale (on the right in the picture below). We chatted about his work with the Russians on the modernisation of the Soyuz spacecraft and watched the Armadillo Aerospace Pixel vehicle flight on the Jumbotron. For more on that modernisation and Foale’s contribution to NASA’s crew vehicle Orion’s cockpit development check out Flight on 31 October.


Posted at 13:15h, 21 October

Armadillo Areospace’s Pixel vehicle lifted off from its pad for its return flight after achieving a successful first flight at around 12:45h but flipped over around 2s into its ascent crashing to Earth. The team’s hopes to win the level one flight prize of $350,000 looks in doubt, as does their plan to today beat the McDonnell Douglas/NASA Delta Clipper vertical take off and landing vehicle flight record of 142s.

Posted at 10:10h, 21 October

Armadillo Aerospace’s Pixel has failed in its first attempt today to win the level one flight prize. Judges have just said that because only two of Pixel’s four legs landed on the landing pad, the flight is null and void. The team will have to get the vehicle back to the starting point for a second attempt at about 11:45h today.

Posted at 09:55h, 21 October

It’s not good news for Armadillo Aerospace’s Pixel vehicle, it flipped over onto its side when it landed, but unfortunately not on the landing pad. What the judges will make of the pad miss and flip will determine whether the team gets to continue or they will have to abandon the $350,000 prize level one flight attempt.

Meanwhile the space elevator games continue at a slow pace. At 08:00h this morning the teams with lighter climbers were jostling to go first as the winds would be low, following the problems they had yesterday. The University of British Columbia had the first slot to try to climb the 164ft (50m) ribbon from 08:45h to 09:15h and even with a 5min extension they still failed becqause their climber could not grip the ribbon.

With the glacial speed of the elevator competition there is always time to pop into the Learning Center, a big tent, and see an astronaut talk about going to space. At 09:00h it was astronaut and NASA associate administrator for space operations and exploration Michael Foale’s turn to talk to the few dozen people who were eager enough to face the cold early morning desert and get to the Learning Center.


Posted at 09:08h, 21 October

It’s a few minutes to go before Armadillo attempts its next flight to win the NASA Centennial Challenge $350,000 prize, scheduled for 09:15h. Earlier Armadillo brought in their vehicles Pixel and Texel to the start line.


Under the competition’s rules the team have a set time, about 2.5h, to take the vehicle from the start line to the launch pad, do the launch prep and make the two flights required, once out to the target landing pad followed by a return flight, and then finally bring the vehicle back to the start line by flat bed truck. Below is a picture of the Armadillo team, having sent Pixel and Texel to the launch site its members of the team have a discussion with members of the local fire department.


Posted at 06:55h, 21 October

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It’s still quite cold here just before seven am on 21 October as we wait to see if the Armadillo Aerospace team will go for the level one flight today, sometime early this morning. We’ve just been told that the Armadillo team might go for both flights, level one and level two, to win a total of $1.35 million but I’ll stick with what the Armadillo guys told me yesterday, its level one and then a vertical take off and landing flight record. Beyond that the rest of the day will see more of rocket belt man, a Tripoli Redstone rocket launch, static engine firings, rocket bike and rocket truck (don’t ask) and NASA’s McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 and Lockheed Martin F-117A Nighthawk flybys. Oh yeah, and the space elevator competition, wind or wind no…

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Posted at 17:42h, 20 October

The FAA, Armadillo Aerospace debrief has just broken up and we have been told that early tomorrow morning the team will attempt the Lunar Lander Challenge level one flight using the Pixel Vehicle (Armadillo has a second back up vehicle called Texel). The level one flight involves a vertical take off from a designated launch area, an ascent to at least 150ft and then travelling horizontally for around 90s to a landing pad 100m away for a vertical landing. Whether that is achieved, and assuming the vehicle is still in one piece, Pixel will be flown again tomorrow for longer than 142s, but not to win a challenge prize. Apparently 142s is the longest the McDonnell Douglas/NASA Delta Clipper vertical take off and landing vehicle achieved durign its development. So the Armadillo team want to try for 180s of flight, setting a new record for VTOL flight.

Posted at 16:45h, 20 October

It’s quiet, sort of, here now with the Jumbotron and public address system switched off and the crowds sent home since the X Prize Cup closed its first day at 1600h local time.
Has it been a success? Well certainly the 6,000 school kids aged six to twelve seemed to enjoy themselves and there were plenty of public address announcements about lost pupils. One wonders how many more will show up on Saturday, when Mum and Dad are not at work and the older offspring have the free time.

As for the NASA Centennial Challenges, well the Armadillo Aerospace team’s Pixel vehicle hit the ground a bit too hard and damaged itself so the lander challenge’s rules of making a return flight ended hopes that any prize money would be paid out today. Now its a nail biting wait to tomorrow to find out if the FAA will approve another flight – the FAA, Armadillo flight debrief is pictured below. Armadillo team leader John Carmack wants to change the flight software but talking to the FAA myself, they weren’t so sure.


But compared to the NASA space elevator competition Carmack did well. It’s not been windy here at all but what gentle breeze there has been has been too much for most of the climber designs. Being an engineer myself I stared at the long line of University based climbing machines in the tent next to the crane, with the ribbon trhey would have to climb, and scratched my head as to why anyone would build such a machine with a huge mass hanging off one side. What are they teaching these kids these days?

Posted at 13:05h, 20 October

Well I am still waiting for the Armadillo Aerospace team to attempt to fly the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge to win $350,000. Earlier today there were three unidentified sources of Wifi radio transmissions that were interfering in the datalink between the Armadillo ground station and the Pixel vehicle that will take to the skies.
They have just (12.40h) scrubbed the launch of the Tripoli Aftershock rocket, why Aftershock I have no idea. But the last rocket was a success and came down with its parachutes deployed, unlike the previous booster…
But at least the rocketbelt guy flew, for a huge total of 30s. And as he bravely told us afterward, “I only had 3.4s of fuel left”. Mad.
Someone equally brave was British born NASA astronaut Mike Foale who gave a presentation on space travel, including a video of himself on the International Space Station, to a couple of hundred children aged six to twelve. Some of those children were later hauled onto the stage in the “Learning Center” tent for New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s sort of a press conference that involved getting the kids to cheer in favor of maths and science, while behind him stood X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis, first female private astronaut Anousheh Ansari and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. What for I have no idea bar helping the governor getting the kids to cheer for science, never a bad thing.
After the bizarre press conference with Bill Richardson everyone moved outside for the unveiling of the XCOR Aerospace designed Thunderhawk Rocket Racing League aircraft. Again Buzz Aldrin, a man never to miss a publicity opportunity, the governor, Diamandis and Rick Homans, New Mexico economic secretary, stood together in front of the media and pulled a parachute off the aircraft to reveal the short, one man, rocket propelled fixed wing with its star spangled canards.

It is all go, sort of, as there are no rocket races for at least another year but the demonstration, using a Learjet, of a synthetic racing track in the sky that is overlayed over live video from the aircraft was pretty cool. But I ask myself, what happened to the space elevator guys, we haven’t heard anything from them, nothing on the Jumbotrons, nothing over the public address system, no press opportunities. Well, I guess its time to investigate. More soon…

Posted at 09:08h, 20 October

How can it be so cold here in the desert, I ask myself sitting here at 09:08h local time (15:08 GMT) waiting for the Armadillo Aerospace team to launch the Pixel rocket vehicle to attempt to win $350,000.

Out here at the Las Cruces International airport with the Organ mountains in the distance the event’s hosts are giving an ongoing commentary, as if we were at the Superbowl, via a public address system and huge Jumbotron screens, with co-hosts reporting from different parts of the exhibition whether it’s the school children at the Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne replica or the inflatable NASA capsule, between the rock music and space related videos blaring out President John F. Kennedy’s “we go to the Moon” speech or Neil Armstrong’s famous words, “one small step for a man”.
But like all events its all a bit behind schedule and the one launch so far saw a rocket return to Earth without its parachute opening, so it returned quickly.
Not that that is a problem for us we’re at some distance from the launch site (see the tiny objects in the distance in the middle of the picture below) safely inside the media tent.
While I slowly thaw out as the sun rises I look at the X Prize Cup timetable and wonder what on Earth, if you’ll escuse the pun, what the Rocket Truck is and wonder who is the loon who will be flying the rocket belt. Rather him/her than me…


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