Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, October 22, 2006

X-Prize Cup 2006: Something Corporate

I arrived at the X-Prize cup on Saturday afternoon around 11:30. I had intended on leaving Albuquerque at 5 AM and arriving before 9 AM, but my friends had insisted that we leave after 6:30, and they made me stop for breakfast. It worked out in the end because I had too much to drink on Friday night and wouldn't have been well-rested by 5 AM anyway.

The signs leading to the event parking (after getting off I-10 onto the frontage road) weren't very big, and I ended up taking a wrong turn and having to get back onto I-10 before I could get to the parking lot. Hopefully this will be fixed for next year.

Differences between this year's cup and last year's were immediately apparent. Both the government (NASA) and the industry (LockMart and NorthGrum) had thrown far more support behind this year's cup. NASA had plenty of displays like Shuttle and Saturn/Ares engines, plus the lunar module static test article. A NASA F/A-18 even made the trip to Las Cruces. NorthGrum put its money where its mouth was, putting up $350,000 for successful completion of the two phases of Lunar Lander Challenge.
Space Shuttle Main Engine display

The afforementioned challenge had been billed as the centerpiece of the cup after Rocket Racing League had to scale back its plans. Armadillo Aerospace was the only team ready to attempt the challenge, despite being barred by the FAA from conducting any test flights with their "Pixel" vehicle prior to the X-Prize Cup. I had the honor of witnessing the third flight attempt, which successfully lifted off, hovered for over 90 seconds, translated to the landing pad, and touched down safely over the course of 1:35. To complete phase 1, Armadillo would have to fly again within two hours and land at the original launch pad. Flight four was attempted with less than half an hour to spare, but aborted shortly after liftoff due to a failure in the Inertial Measurement Unit. There was speculation at the time that the IMU couldn't compensate for previous damage to one of the vehicle's feet. All-in-all, Armadillo put in a valiant effort, and I hope to see great things from John Carmack & Co. in the near future.
Pixel hovers during its third Lunar Lander Challange flight

The Armadillo team bringing the "Pixel" lander back to base after its last mission

The other main event was a demonstration of the Rocket Racing League. While the Velocity-based Rocket Racer wasn't ready to fly, the league flew a LearJet through the virtual race course in the sky. Spectators on the ground were able to see the computer-generated course markers from the large screens which relayed a pilot's eye view of the action.
The Lear Jet which filled in for the Velocity-based Rocket Racer

I learned of other exciting developments while talking to industry representatives and building connections. Here's a brief rundown:

--UP Aerospace is currently conducting a failure investigation from their inaugural launch at the New Mexico spaceport. No findings can be discussed at this time. While the accident investigation does not follow an ISO-type procedure due to the sounding rocket nature of the mission, it has been developed to follow industry best-practices including fault-tree analysis. The ashes of James Doohan and Gordon Cooper were recovered from the impact site, but different samples will probably be used on a future mission. The four-person team at UP Aerospace plans on launching eight missions for undisclosed customers in 2007.

--Lockheed Martin was promoting the manned Atlas V, Atlas V Heavy, and Phase I&II growth variants of the Atlas V. They were also showing off models of a pod which would eject microsats from the Atlas V. It would fly in place of the SRB's. It was explained to me that Robert Bigelow (who has been the driving force behind the need for a manned Atlas V) views space tourists as a loss-leader for his envisioned program. The primary customers will be foreign governments who want to fly passengers and experiments. In that case, the price of an orbital flight may rise to above the ~$20 mil that is currently being paid for Soyuz flights.
A model of what may be the next manned launcher

--Rocketplane-Kistler discussed the possibility of manned K-1 flights, but was focused on developing the K-1 for cargo missions to the space station. Cargo modules (and a future passenger module) would be interchangeable between vehicles. For a manned K-1, the cabin would be separated by rockets mounted below the capsule to avoid any penetrations of the heat shield atop the K-1. Swivel seats would seem like a no-brainer based on the K-1's mode of operations, but they're currently "in the trade space."

--Scion Aviation was showing off a partly-completed high-speed UAV which would be used for military target practice and for atmospheric sampling of forest fires, to give fire fighters a better idea of how the fire needs to be extinguished.

--Masten Space Systems showed off the XA-0.1, which unfortunately couldn't compete in the Lunar Lander Challenge. I was hoping to meet Jon Goff but failed in my mission. Masten did perform a successful engine firing, though.

--Orion Propulsion got a lot of enthusiasm for their successful static fire of the rocket truck. I asked a lot of questions when I met one of the people at the Orion tent. She eventually revealed to me that she was a security volunteer, but she had amassed a remarkable amount of knowledge about Orion by working with them.
Jet trucks rock!

--The model rocket hobby was in force, thanks to successful rocket launches and static fires conducted by the Tripoli high-power rocket association. I also got to meet Wes Oleszewski, the creator of Klyde Morris and Dr. Zooch rockets.
A successful static fire from Tripoli

Another benefit for me was getting to meet people I had gone to school with and hadn't seen in a long time (some as long as three years.) It's good to see how well my alma matter was represented.

Overall, I had a good time. I regret not leaving earlier, so I could at least listen to lectures by the likes of Anousheh Ansari and John "Herringbone" Herrington. Still, it was a good experience, and you can expect to see me there next year.