Space Challenge Gives NASA Run for Its Money

Just days after NASA ran a test launch of its spiffy new Ares I-X rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a small but devout band of creative space geeks have been trying their hand at rocket science in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

On shoestring budgets that probably wouldn’t suffice to pay the salary of NASA’s personnel for a day, four privately sponsored teams have been competing in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge for a chance to win $2 million in total prize money in six different tasks. 

The NASA-sponsored contest is part of a long-term project which aims to stimulate private individuals and companies into developing potentially cost-effective means of carrying out basic space tasks.  NASA hopes that private entrepreneurs might one day be able to save taxpayers millions of dollars by providing routine space services for a fraction of the money that the federal space agency currently dishes out.

The Ares I-X, which NASA tested on Tuesday, cost U.S. taxpayers upwards of half a billion dollars to get from the drawing board into the atmosphere.  By contrast, the average cost of the privately funded lunar modules taking part in this week’s contest was around $2 million.

One of the companies participating in the space challenge, Masten Space Systems, shot their 10-foot-tall rocket, Xoie, successfully into the air on Friday after a nearly disastrous fire on Thursday that threatened to put the company’s rocket out of commission.

Though official results won’t be announced until later in the week, insiders say that Masten’s craft took a clear lead in the competition on Friday, largely on account of its impressively accurate landing.

The official Lunar Lander Challenge rules require the competitors to navigate their remote-controlled lunar modules between two moon-mimicking launch pads located 50 meters (164 feet) apart.  The rockets must travel from launch pad A to launch pad B and back, and must remain in flight for a minimum of 180 seconds for each leg of the trip.  In addition, the vessels have to rise to a minimum altitude of 50 meters above the ground, and the whole venture must be completed in less than 135 minutes.

Dave Masten, owner of Masten Space Systems, says his long-term aspirations for his company include more than just becoming NASA’s lunar pageboy.  He says he would ultimately like to travel into orbit aboard his own ship “” an ambition shared in part by other competitors in the program who say they see a much more lucrative future in someday using their technology to provide private space tourism flights.

With just a few days left in the competition, the Texas-based team, Armadillo Aerospace, is trailing close on Masten’s heels. The father-son team Unreasonable Rocket has still got a chance to overtake Masten in their launch on Sunday afternoon.

After being plagued by a scourge of technical problems all week, Paul Breed of the Unreasonable Rocket duo admitted that their chances of besting Masten were a long shot.

“It’s still a Hail Mary to be ready for the 180, but we are not yet dead,” said Breed on his team’s blog this weekend.

All in all, the competition has been a roller-coaster ride for both participants and observers.

“The drama has just been unbelievable,” Stuart Witt, GM of the Mojave Air and Space Port told MSNBC reporters.

“I’m really proud of all the teams,” he added, “regardless of the winners.”

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