Monday, October 23, 2006
Pictures At A Rocket Exhibition: X Prize Cup 2006
The X-Prize Cup was a lot of sizzle promising the meat to come. There were many static exhibits of spaceships that the so-called New Space companies hope to build and fly in the near future. Burt Rutan's company, the only private space program so far to successfully fly a human being into space, sent a mockup of SpaceShipOne but didn't otherwise participate in the event. Robert Bigelow's company (here), which has an inflatable prototype space station in orbit right now, didn't appear to be represented either. If it was there, it was behind the scenes.
One little company that hopes to build the rockets of the future, the Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, launched a small, reusable rocketship 50 meters up, and then 100 meters over to a landing pad in a failed attempt to win $350,000 from NASA. Armadillo's ship, Pixel, flew well three times but had trouble with landings. The fourth launch ended in diseaster when little Pixel crashed on takeoff. (Here.)
After Pixel's first flight on Friday, Armadillo's owner John Carmack, admitted that nothing on his rocket is useful for NASA's plans to return to the moon. Instead, Carmack said that the lesson of his company's building of Pixel should be to shame those who build for NASA because Armadillo spent only $250,000 with a small group of part time employees working for 6 months.
Carmack has a good point but the point has already been made by Rutan's SpaceShipOne, and if COTS and NASA's other prize competitions are any indication, the lesson has already been learned. SpaceShipOne's flights proved that a smaller company working under the financial constraints of private funding can do more with less than large contractors spending public money under government contracts. Rutan, however, employed a full-time professional work force and had millions of dollars to spend.
To give Armadillo its due, the company's part-time work force did make a reusable rocket that flew three times in two days before it crashed. Armadillo's attempts at the prize were inspiring to see and it was heartbreaking when little Pixel finally fell to its doom. On the other hand, Armadillo is competing for a NASA funded prize but is making nothing that NASA can use and in the end, the company failed to win the prize. It's not clear from that how NASA or its contractors should be shamed. Nor is it clear just what NASA hopes to get from this particular prize competition.
For an event promoting private space ventures, NASA was a dominating presence at the X-Prize Cup. All day Saturday NASA astronauts and scientists gave talks in the Northrup Grumman tent. Armadillo's flights were done to win NASA money. The other big event at the Cup, the Space Elevator Games, had teams of college and high-school students trying to win NASA prizes. (Here.) NASA's F/A 18 did a fly-by as did a U.S. military stealth fighter. The only other private flights were done by amateur rocketeers launching small rockets, and by the Rocket Racing League's Lear jet, which flew by in order to demonstrate how the RRL's rockets will compete when the league gets going.
The overall impression one takes away from this year's X-Prize Cup is of future possibilities not present-day realities. As more money finds its way into the industry and more people work on making space affordable to the average person, that future may happen sooner rather than later. Right now, however, the industry remains in its infancy.
Technorati: NASA, Space, X Prize, X-Prize Cup.
Labels: X-Prize Cup 2006
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