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Image: Rocket blastoff
Jim Seida  /  MSNBC.com
Armadillo Aerospace's entry in the $2 million Lunar Lander Challenge leaves its launch pad to begin a test flight Thursday at Las Cruces International Airport in New Mexico.
updated 10/20/2006 12:00:25 AM ET 2006-10-20T04:00:25

After months of deliberation and a crucial flight test, the Federal Aviation Administration cleared Armadillo Aerospace on Thursday to compete for a share of the $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

The rocket-powered, remote-control Quad lander did what it was supposed to do during a test at Las Cruces International Airport: It blasted off, moved over in the air and touched down without hurting anybody.

It kicked up huge clouds of dust and tipped over when it set down. But no damage was done, and hours afterward, FAA officials said they cleared the Quad for Friday's initial round of competition at the Wirefly X Prize Cup. "It's going to fly," Patricia Grace Smith, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, told MSNBC.com.

The agency mandated Thursday's test under the terms of the permit it issued just this week for the Quad's Lunar Lander Challenge bid.

The contest is part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which offers prizes to promote the commercial development of technologies that could come into play in the space agency's effort to return to the moon. The Lunar Lander Challenge represents the richest contest to date. Four teams entered the challenge, but three of them have dropped out — leaving Armadillo as the only true competitor this year.

Armadillo stands to win a first prize of $350,000 from NASA if the Quad can rise to a height of 50 meters (164 feet), hover for at least 90 seconds, set down on a landing pad 100 meters (328 feet) away from its starting point, and retrace the route back to the start after refueling.

A million-dollar prize is being offered for an even more ambitious feat, involving a hover time of 180 seconds and a more rugged landing pad, but it's not clear whether anyone has a chance of reaching that goal this year. Any unwon prize money — including the money that was set aside for any second-place finishers — will be saved up for next year's Lunar Lander Challenge.

Although NASA is providing the prize money for the contest, the FAA is the agency that regulates the vehicles that take part. Thursday's test was aimed at demonstrating that the Quad would be safe to operate in front of thousands of spectators at the airport, rather than exactly duplicating the prize-winning flight plan. All Armadillo aimed to do was to have the Quad lift off, move through the air for 50 meters, then set down.

Armadillo team leader John Carmack issued flight controls using a laptop computer wirelessly linked to the Quad, and the launch went off on cue. The rocket hovered at a height of about 10 feet (3 meters), then began to traverse the specified 50 meters to the landing point. Plumes of dust and dirt rose 30 or 40 feet (9 to 12 meters) into the air.

"It was flying so low to the ground I couldn't see a damned thing," Carmack told MSNBC.com. "I went by GPS coordinates."

Carmack said the flight was bedeviled by the lack of visibility plus "a surveying issue."

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"I assumed the angle between [the takeoff and landing] pads was 45 degrees, when really it was something like 42 degrees," he said. As a result, the Quad landed 10 feet (3 meters) off the designated landing pad.

Ken Davidian, who is working on NASA's behalf on the Centennial Challenges program, told MSNBC.com that the Quad tipped over as it landed. "It just fell over, and there was no damage," he said.

Carmack voiced satisfaction as he reviewed the flight data and waited for the FAA's verdict.

"It's been six months from a drawing on a piece of paper to now," he said. "I'm very proud of my team. There's a lot of people wiping sweat off their brow. ... I set it down exactly where I thought the pad would be."

Mike Kelly, vice president of operations for the X Prize Foundation, was similarly pleased: "It was a good test of the flight operations system.  We had some communication problems, but we went to backup and it worked fine. ... My initial impression is that they did very well. They did very well."

Jim Seida is a multimedia producer for MSNBC.com. Alan Boyle is MSNBC.com's science editor.

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