After two years of near-misses, Armadillo Aerospace won a $350,000 prize Friday in an rocket contest created by NASA to encourage the development of new lunar lander prototypes.

The rules for the challenge’s Level 1 contest call for teams to fly their remote-controlled, rocket-powered landers up to a height of 50 meters (yards), hover for at least 90 seconds, land at another pad 100 meters (yards) away, refuel and then retrace the route — all within 150 minutes.

The Texas-based Armadillo rocketeers tried to win the Level 1 contest in 2006, but their vehicle flipped and crashed. Last year, Armadillo came within just seconds of triumph, but because of engine problems, the lander didn’t hover for the required 90 seconds to win.

Armadillo encountered snags on Friday as well. First of all, the 150-minute clock for the attempt was started later than scheduled. Armadillo’s first flight didn’t stay up quite long enough to satisfy the 90-second requirement, but team members got off another flight that did. Then they started preparations for a third flight that could have won them the Level 1 prize.

That’s when Armadillo ran into yet another problem: Because of the late start, the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight window closed even though some time was left on the Lunar Lander Challenge’s clock. The airport had to be reopened to airplane traffic, and Armadillo had to keep their lander on the ground.

“Color me quite frustrated on several counts,” said Armadillo team founder John Carmack, a millionaire video-game programmer.

Armadillo and TrueZer0 get opportunities
To make up for the mix-up, the Lunar Lander Challenge’s judges decided to reset the clock and give Armadillo a chance to make one quick flight in the afternoon for the prize.

While Armadillo waited its turn, another team in the contest, Chicago-based TrueZer0, was given an opportunity to vie for the prize. TrueZer0’s rocket-powered lander crashed and burned after just 18 seconds of flight. The vehicle was a total loss.

“We were hoping for a little better,” TrueZer0 team member Scott Zeeb said. “But we came out here with the understanding that we hadn’t tested a huge amount. We knew this was a real possibility … and we’re OK with it.”

Then the way was cleared for Armadillo’s do-over. This time, the lunar lander stayed in the air for a few seconds over the 90-second requirement, and Armadillo’s team returned the lander to its specified starting point with time remaining on the clock. The prize was won at last.

… And that was just the easy part
Friday’s Level 1 contest represents the easy part of the Lunar Lander Challenge. On Saturday, the Armadillo team is due to return to Las Cruces’ airport with a different rocket vehicle to make a run at the Level 2 contest, which offers a $1 million first prize.

The Level 2 competition requires three-minute hover times for each leg of the two-way trip, plus a more difficult landing on terrain that more closely simulates the rocky, uneven lunar surface.

NASA created the Lunar Lander Challenge as part of its Centennial Challenges program, to encourage the development of new technologies that could be incorporated into future real-life moon landers.

The space agency is putting up prize money totaling $2 million, which covers consolation prizes as well as the $350,000 first prize for Level 1 and the $1 million first prize for Level 2. The X Prize Foundation manages the two-level competition on NASA’s behalf.

The Level 2 flights will be webcast live at:

This report was updated and supplemented by

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Armadillo Wins LLC Level 1
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