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Moon Space NASA

Lunar Lander Challenge Ends in Fire, Disappoinment 123

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the fire-go-boom-boom dept.
mikesd81 writes "The rocketeers at Armadillo Aerospace, thwarted by engine problems and other mechanical failures, left this year's X Prize Cup empty-handed after their spacecraft burst into flames on liftoff Sunday. An attempt on Sunday to hop from launch and landing pads ended with the MOD craft bursting in flames shortly after engine ignition. This is the team's second attempt at the challenge in New Mexico, they were the only entrant in last year's event, which they also lost. Brett Alexander, Executive Director of Space Prizes and the X Prize Cup relayed a comment from John Carmack, leader of the Armadillo team: "Today is officially a bad day when it comes to our vehicle." The last attempt to win the $350,000 Level 1 prize on Sunday ended when the MOD vehicle had an engine fire, with pieces coming off, including disconnected cabling. Clearly, there was a fire on the pad that burned for a while — but then went out. The Armadillo team called a safety emergency, requesting fire truck assistance, Alexander said."
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Lunar Lander Challenge Ends in Fire, Disappoinment

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  • Overly negative (Score:5, Informative)

    by peacefinder (469349) <alan.dewitt@ g m a i l . com> on Monday October 29, 2007 @11:47AM (#21157611) Journal
    That writeup is a bit misleading. It's not like they just showed up and their vehicle burst into flames. In a previous attempt this weekend they completed a 90+ second flight, then about 88 seconds of the second, potentially prizewinning flight before engine trouble brought them down.

    It wasn't enough to win the prize, but they still had some impressive flights.
  • by jeti (105266) on Monday October 29, 2007 @12:27PM (#21158059) Homepage
    There is an excellent article on how the LLC rules were designed:
    http://www.xprize.org/blogs/wpomerantz/ng-llc-rules-explained [xprize.org]
  • Re:Overly negative (Score:3, Informative)

    by peacefinder (469349) <alan.dewitt@ g m a i l . com> on Monday October 29, 2007 @12:28PM (#21158087) Journal
    They've actually had several flights on that vehicle. Aside from ignition problems, they seem to have an engine design that can reliably run for several minutes at very decent thrust, and they obviously have a solid handle on flight stability. But yeah, the contest conditions exposed some troubles for them.

    I'm not quite sure of my sources on this, but they seem to have had fuel (oxidizer? igniter?) contamination issues, leading to a flaky igniter, leading on the second flight to a hard start that caused engine damage. This damage was clear to them, so they chose to sit in a low hover at the end of their second flight to mitigate a half-expected crash. It appears that as the engine progressively got worse the vehicle started oscillating, and eventually the legs contacted the ground causing a tipover and automatic engine shutdown.

    They're doing really well, but they will have to clear up their ignition issues. I'm pretty sure their suborbital flight profile will demand that they be able to do reliable in-flight restarts, so I think ignition is going to be a big issue for the over the next year.
  • Re:Overly negative (Score:4, Informative)

    by brian.stinar (1104135) on Monday October 29, 2007 @12:50PM (#21158313) Homepage
    Hey,

    I went to Alamogordo to watch the competition. As a graduate student in Albuquerque, the 3.5 hour drive was worth it. As the previous poster commented, the Saturday flight was ALMOST successful. The first transition from pad to pad did not have any problems at all. The hovering lander was a very interesting sight to see above the desert. Due to safety issues, the viewing area was too far away to get a good look when the lander was close to the ground. However, a large video screen broadcast the images.

    When I was standing there, watching, it was unclear what actually caused them to fail to meet the objectives. I thought the lander actually made the time limit on the return trip but did not land successfully. I thought it tipped over, or something broke off when it came down. However, I was unable to clearly see and my experience was based on a what people were saying over a loud speaker and the images of lander in a dusty cloud on a giant screen. It is interesting to read that they actually did not meet the time limit. I wasn't able to see the Sunday launch.

    Overall, I will probably continue to support the competitions. Many people in New Mexico are excited about developing a consumer space industry, myself included. The air show had about the same excitement pattern as a baseball game, very exciting for a small portion of the time and a lot of waiting. I hope that the guys at Armadillo Aerospace know that everyone is rooting for them.

    When I get ready to graduate, I will bring a STACK of resumes to the XPrize contests, there were a lot of really cool companies with booths set up.

          -Brian-
  • by Mr2cents (323101) on Monday October 29, 2007 @12:57PM (#21158387)
    I've been following their news flashes also, and indeed they are very open about what they're doing (and how). The amount of testing they've done is staggering, but the landing has always been the weakest link of the vehicle IMHO. I think landing is at least as difficult as building the rest of the rocket, but most testing went toward engine testing.

    Lately, they have been flying reliably, but then they had to change the graphite chambers suddenly because the company they bought them from had received a big order and could not supply them to Armadillo. Is that what caused the problems? In any case, making changes just before the big show is always an omen for troubles (not that they had a choice).

    It's really too bad, I thought they had a fair chance. I just hope John will take some time to really focus on the landing, the engine troubles will have to be examined but I don't think it will turn out to be a major issue (again, they've been flying for a while now, the engine is quite stable).

    The good thing is that, as a sofware engineer, he surely knows how to handle crashes emotionally.
  • by XenoPhage (242134) on Monday October 29, 2007 @01:19PM (#21158643) Homepage

    I've been following their news flashes also, and indeed they are very open about what they're doing (and how). The amount of testing they've done is staggering, but the landing has always been the weakest link of the vehicle IMHO. I think landing is at least as difficult as building the rest of the rocket, but most testing went toward engine testing.
    Yeah, it looks like landing is definitely a tough one.. My guess is that the upward thrust, combined with the sudden outward forces induced when getting closer to the ground, causes some problems with the vertical landing. Seems that as they approach, the vehicle starts tilting a bit..

    Lately, they have been flying reliably, but then they had to change the graphite chambers suddenly because the company they bought them from had received a big order and could not supply them to Armadillo. Is that what caused the problems? In any case, making changes just before the big show is always an omen for troubles (not that they had a choice). That may have been it, though there has been some talk about the fuel mixture as well. I guess there's no "standard" for fuel mixtures, or at least, not the kind they use, and the supplier may have changed the mixture slightly? I'm sure John and the rest of the crew will dissect, diagnose, and post the findings..

    It's really too bad, I thought they had a fair chance. I just hope John will take some time to really focus on the landing, the engine troubles will have to be examined but I don't think it will turn out to be a major issue (again, they've been flying for a while now, the engine is quite stable).
    He sounded pretty disappointed... Went as far as saying that they felt worse than last year.. I think it was just a bad day.. Sure, improvement will definitely help, but there are always those days that nothing goes right.. That said, they did have some decent flights earlier.. And, the AST qualification flight went off without a hitch.. There's video here : http://media.armadilloaerospace.com/2007_10_21/modFreeFlight.mpg [armadilloaerospace.com]

    The good thing is that, as a software engineer, he surely knows how to handle crashes emotionally.
    Heh... There was a lot of discussion about how being a software engineer has impacted how he builds rockets.. Incremental improvements.. Build fast, fly often.. And it's worked.
  • Re:Congrats anyway. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Zak3056 (69287) on Monday October 29, 2007 @01:43PM (#21158973) Journal

    I don't watch NASCAR, but the automobiles are technologically sophisticated. They cost $125,000 to build, and because there's so much money in it, are the result of the most expensive, top-notch engineering you can find in racing.

    While I think that the idea that the GP post was modded "insightful" is downright sad, I have to disagree with the above as well. While the race teams strive to get the cars as fast as possible, NASCAR's engineering (at the circuit level) appears to be dedicated to "making the race more competitive." That means SLOWER cars (see "restrictor plate," "aero package,") and rigid specifications on how the cars can be engineered and set-up.

    Contrast this with something like F1 where it really is all about the technology, and it's downright silly to describe NASCAR as the apex of automotive engineering.

  • by iamlucky13 (795185) on Monday October 29, 2007 @03:31PM (#21160509)
    FYI, the Soyuz flight where the three cosmonauts died on re-entry was due to a mechanical malfunction of a valve that connected the re-entry capsule to the rest of the Soyuz spacecraft. It was not an error on the crew's part. In fact, one of the crewmen actually had just enough time to unbuckle, crawl beneath the seat and close the valve halfway before passing out. Rather tragic.

    The Soviet space program is as full of accidents or more so than our own. It really is tough business:

    Yuri Gagarin's Vostok 1 capsule remained inadvertantly connected to it's service module during re-entry due to a bundle of wires (I assume a pyro failed to fire). It caused the spacecraft to wobble marginally out-of-control until the wires burned through.

    After a series of problems in-flight led to a decision to delay the Soyuz 2 launch (probably fortuitiously, since 2 would've had the same issues), the Soyuz 1 main chute didn't deploy and the backup chute tangled. The cosmonaut died when the capsule hit the ground. Interestingly, it launched under political pressure, and Gagarin had tried to get himself scheduled for the flight, believing the politburo would then listen to the engineer's concerns rather than risk losing a national hero.

    All four N-1's (the Soviet's planned moon rocket) exploded during launch (unmanned).

    A Cosmos rocket exploded on the pad in 1973, killing 9 engineers.

    In 1975, Soyuz 18a went out of control 5 minutes into launch, causing the launch escape system to activate. This saved the crew, but barely. They experienced accellerations up to 21 g's, and the capsule landed in the mountains in NW China. One article claims the capsule would've tumbled off a cliff if the chute hadn't snagged on a tree, but I haven't seen that verified.

    Soyuz 23 in 1976 crashed through a frozen lake and sank with the crew inside. Remarkably, the crew was saved after considerable effort when a diver attached a cable that allowed a helicopter to lift the capsule out.

    A 1980 explosion of an unmanned Vostok rocket on the pad killed 48 people on the ground.

    In 1983, Soyuz T-10 caught fire on the pad. Ground control triggered the launch escape system, pulling the two men and their capsule clear. The rocket exploded two seconds later, but the cosmonauts survived.

    There was a fire aboard the Mir in 1997. The same year, a Progress cargo ship collided with the station and punctured one of the modules. The crew had to rush to close the hatch to the module.

    In 2002, an unmanned Soyuz rocket exploded, killing a Russian soldier.

    One thing few people realize is there have been nearly as many close-calls in the US space program. Everyone knows about Apollo 13, but the first shuttle launch had a near burn-through due to tiles that fell off during launch. Another shuttle flight had an engine shutdown due to a short circuit that left it in a low orbit. Apollo 12 was hit by lightning. One of the Gemini flights went out of control and tumbled violently, nearly killing Neil Armstrong and David Scott. The Mercury 4 capsule had a hatch blow prematurely on splash down and sank as Gus Grissom scrambled to escape.

    All of these guys, US, Russian, and Chinese alike have a lot of guts.
  • Re:Points to make (Score:3, Informative)

    by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning AT netzero DOT net> on Tuesday October 30, 2007 @11:58AM (#21171821) Homepage Journal
    I consider this comment to be the most well rounded and informed "criticism" of Armadillo Aerospace that I have ever seen posted on either /., or on any other forum for that matter.

    I've noticed that SpaceX (and Elon Musk) has decided to push toward the vertical integration concepts that you are talking about here, and it seems to have saved them quite a bit in terms of both cost of operations as well as improving their quality assurance. The Falcon I still isn't a resounding success, but at least they have been able to put something into orbital altitudes and velocities... not bad for only two attempts. And when all is said and done, SpaceX will have spent close to a billion dollars to get everything going, so the suggestion that money is needed is a valid remark to make as well... at least if you want to get a rocket going sometime in a comparatively short period of time.

    Another huge example of how American industry is failing companies like Armadillo Aerospace is the huge PITA efforts that John went through to try and get hydrogen peroxide for his initial mono-propellant engines. He certainly got a very effective peroxide engine built, but ran out of suppliers for the quality and purity that he needed for rocket fuel. Well, that and the Dept. of Homeland Security who treats 95% pure peroxide as a bomb making component with huge regulations over who can purchase the stuff, and companies who make the stuff worried about lawsuits, so they refuse to sell it unless it is a proven customer. This is but another example of where he had a neat idea (the peroxide engines) but was forced to change directions when he couldn't get the stuff that he wanted/needed to make his project work.

The meat is rotten, but the booze is holding out. Computer translation of "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

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