Here in North Texas we had a treat this weekend as Armadillo Aerospace made its bid for the $1,000,000 purse of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge at the Caddo Mills Municipal Airport just east of Dallas.
Festivities kicked off in the hangar shortly after 9am on Saturday as folks got registered and hung around waiting for the rain to let up. Anticipating such a wait I had brought my bag of Moon goodies with me, and after getting permission I set up a small display of genuine fake Moon rocks and real regolith simulant. Many a youngster was engaged for long stretches of time learning about Moon rocks and asteroids. One budding geologist was even curious about the smell and taste of anorthosite.
The delay turned out to be a long one, and it wasn’t until later in the afternoon that the weather cleared enough to make an attempt. This left some time to wander about the facilities and check out some fine American engineering.
Pixel is one of my favorites. It’s the hardware that Armadillo showed off at the ISDC here in Dallas back in 2007, and the most popular exhibit in the display room. It looks a little worse for wear now.
I didn’t expect to see an X-Racer there, but it was an opportunity to check out the plumbing and peek into the cockpit to compare the control panel with the one I had seen in the simulator at the last ISDC. Since I like taking pictures of the business end of rockets, here’s one of the Rocket Racer motor.
What’s interesting is to compare the scarring in the combustion chamber with the scarring in the combustion chamber of the Scorpius. I’m not an engineer, nor do I play one on TV, but the pattern in the Scorpius chamber appears to me to be a more efficient design, in the context that the ‘flares’ coming out from the center are more cleanly defined and regular. This tells me that the Armadillo team is getting better at what they do, and their success in this year’s Challenge is testament to that.
Local families continued to wander through, and the police and fire department folks were hanging out as well. I went through my Moon spiel more times than I can remember, but at least all of the kids now know more about the Moon than their teachers. Most folks would have given up, but we Texans knew better. There’s an old saying here in North Texas that if you don’t like the weather, just wait around a bit and it’ll change. The local weather radar was on the mission control laptop, and experienced eyes were watching the patterns for breaks in the slow gentle rain. Periodically the VIPs would stop down to check on developments, but they mostly kept to themselves. Then, mid-afternoon, the tenor changed and we got the mission briefing. It was tough to hear with the rain still coming down on the hangar roof, and the video I took only seemed to pick up on baby wails and white noise.
Concerned about the rain-slicked soil, the crane truck was fired up and the vehicle moved to a different trailer. The crane truck by itself was probably okay, but crane plus trailer plus rocket was just playing chicken with Murphy’s Law. Everyone moved out to the viewing area to wait while the rocket fueled up at the launch area. Then the countdown crackled out of the radio, and like something out of the movie “October Sky” the whole gaggle of spectators joined in – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0…ker-thunk. Hold up, wait a minute, main igniter issue, let’s try again…ker-thunk…okay, one more time – ker-whoosh, and away she went. Like a refined lady she delicately worked her way to altitude, precisely slid through the translation, then demurely descended to a soft landing. Cheers arose amongst the spectators as the first stage of the challenge was completed.
Believe it or not, this was my first rocket launch. I’ve never seen a shuttle launch, nor anything other than model rockets. I’ve gotta say, it was pretty darn cool. I should have stuck around for the second flight, but it was after 4 in the afternoon, my lower back was in severe pain from having stood at the display since 9:30am, and my throat was raspy from jabbering away about the Moon all day, and I could tell that some kind of illness was trying to set up shop in my chilled, damp body. My memory cards were all full, so I was pretty much done for the day.
I didn’t just talk with all the kids during the day; I did speak with many of the adults as well, though the message I try to convey is a bit more sophisticated. I don’t talk about inspiration and discovery, I talk about commerce and economics. The U.S. has a competitive advantage in this industry, and the space industry has very high barriers to entry. I think Armadillo is a great example of the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that will commercialize the space industry, and they’re clearly getting better at what they do, working their way up the learning curve.
So congrats to Armadillo on their successful run. These kinds of successes are crucial for the nascent commercial space industry, so a big thank you to Armadillo Aerospace for adding another success to the growing list.
And speaking of refined ladies, here’s a video from the beautiful and talented Cariann over at SpaceVidcast: