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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lunar Lander Challenge: DIY engineers try and fly their homemade rockets

As you know, NASA said they'll be going back to the moon, for human missions, and other governments have said they'll do the same.The big event at X Prize Cup 2007 is the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, in which DIY engineers try and fly their homemade rockets from one concrete pad to another, 100 meters away. NASA put up the $2 million in prize money, hoping they'll get a sense of how a new generation of mooncraft might look. Instead of paying hundreds of millions to a giant corporation for paper plans, NASA, along with Northrop Grumman, is checking out the crowd-sourcing approach to space exploration. I spoke to William Pomerantz, the director of Space Projects for The X Prize Foundation and the man overseeing the competition.

William Pomerantz: It's an annual competition for teams that can build a rocket that has the power required to go from lunar orbit to lunar surface and back
The Apollo LM (lunar module), which was built by the Grumman corporation and that did the job every time and did it perfectly, has been retired. They are all in museums. No one has tried to do that job again in the last 35 years. Right now there is not a spacecraft that can do the job.

NASA, by spending an incredibly small amount of money for them, hopes to get people thinking in this direction. The teams are designing vehicles, first on paper and then building models, and working the kinks out. And they are showing how, in a short time period, a small group of people can build, test and get one of these vehicles operational many times within a couple of hours. Even better for NASA is that multiple teams are doing this. That was one reason we took that $2 million and, rather than winner take all, split it four ways. Level one and two is like JV and varsity, and each of those levels is divided into first and second prizes.

The idea was to give teams a stepping stone. We knew level two was incredibly difficult, so level one provides them with a benchmark somewhere in between, so they can have a pat-on-the-back moment, get some seed money into their systems, and to have a way promote themselves to investors or possible partners. And by offering a second prize, if we have a clear frontrunner there would still be incentives for other teams to keep working.

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