Well, as has been noted in the newspace circles, Armadillo Aerospace failed to win the lunar lander challenge even after coming very close in 2006 already, and being even closer this time. Their report text is here and videos and pictures here (highly recommended). Other teams failed even to participate.
Everybody was cheering for Armadillo. The dream carries on. More testing, more steady state solutions. One part of Armadillo’s problems has been that they have to drive quite a distance to their test site, which limits testing a lot. Teams like Masten Space Systems have it easier in Mojave, but they had some tank supplier problems as well as some things with the control algorithms, and haven’t done any info updates for over a month since they started trying to do hover tests. (Wink, wink. )
Acuity and Paragon were teams that didn’t give much info, so it was hard to judge where they were, the same applied to BonNova. Speedup gave some info as well as Micro-Space. Unreasonable Rocket‘s Paul Breed was very informative in his blog and I laud his efforts.
One thing which some parallels can be drawn to is the DARPA Grand Challenge, which promised prizes to teams constructing an autonomous vehicle that can drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas via a marked desert route. The first year was a failure, with most of the teams failing to even qualify for start. (There was a short obstacle course test.) But the next year, the prize was won and many vehicles finished. It seems that either the Lunar Lander Challenge is harder or then people are not willing to put similar broad resources behind it. It may be both. In 2007 the DARPA Grand Challenge has moved to a new urban setting.
There also exists a different comparison. The X-Prize, which was won by Scaled Composites in 2004. Other teams didn’t come even close or even make that much progress and almost all disappeared quickly after the victory. Scaled had a big money backer, Paul Allen, and worked long and hard to do it. A very different picture from the Grand Challenge contest, as well as a different style of doing it. One worked with yearly races with increasing prize money, the other was an absolute deadline. And of course the former was probably much easier than the latter.
There are many ways Armadillo’s failures can be analyzed. You can look at subsystems: this year their problem was the engine (you can read the details in their report mentioned above). Last year it was the landing gear as well as a badly surveyed track.
But the engine problems had some story behind them: either the air was more humid or the altitude was higher than on their own test site. Or the ethanol composition was different which caused clogging of the injector, which caused grief later. Or they hadn’t run back to back flights so close after each other with the engine before. This all speaks of how the small details are important. Jon Goff (who inhabits my blogroll) has said how they at Masten Space had the first engine hard start problems only on the
30th 300th test run. You need lots of testing to make designs reliable (or then somebody invents a foolproof way to do a start). Some people have also proposed that since the development of new reliable rocket hardware takes significant time and effort, it would be easier to buy ready made engines from subcontractors. But it seems this has not caught on, the lunar lander challenge outfits are so poor that they can’t afford this and have to develop their own stuff. Also you lose intellectual capital and technological lead distance by selling your engine design. And lastly, people saw what happened to Masten when they subcontracted their control algorithm (or at least assume until they do a development update). It’s a bit harder to troubleshoot when you didn’t make it yourself. Although the decision still might have sped up development considerably.
It’s an interesting juncture. If there is no more than one LLC competitor next year or even if there are but the prize still isn’t won, would a rethought approach to the problem be better? On the other hand, with a tiny bit more luck, Armadillo could have taken the money home already in 2006, and people would have made other far reaching conclusions about these things. It’s not wise to try to make up your mind from too little data and proclaim somethind far reaching. So I’ll make a prediction, like last year: next year Armadillo will finish the challenge and there will be other competitors too.
Of course, if someone wanted to enter the suborbital business, they could hire me as a consultant and I’d say which parts to buy from where to combine into a perfect vehicle.
Edit 2007/11/5 : Corrected Masten’s 30 test runs before the hard start to 300, per Jon Goff’s comments. He also says my guesses about their control system are not entirely right.