Lessons Learned From This "Shakedown Cruise" For The X-Prize
The Countdown to the Cup is over, and it was a smashing success.
That opinion seems to be shared by everybody we have asked, from
FAA regulators to exhibitors to six-year-old kids, to White Sands
"real rocket scientist" engineers, to other journalists.
The crowd was large (between 10,000 and 20,000 paying
customers), enthusiastic, and mostly, young. To someone used to
seeing the grey, bald heads and stooped shoulders at aviation
shows, the youth of this crowd was an exceedingly welcome
demographic data point.
In fact, crowd was large from the very beginning, as Dr. Peter
Diamandis, Secretary Rick Homans of the NM Economic Development
Department, and Assistant Secretary of the Tourism Department
shared a scissors to cut the show-opening ribbon.
None of the problems that we expected and feared cropped up.
Indeed, none of the usual airshow/big event problems cropped
There were no lines for the porta-potties, for one thing.
The lines were at the food vendors. Again, no healthy food out
there. Imagine standing in line for almost an hour, to get a hot
dog, or nachos and cheese. People did. Fortunately, long lines are
a self-correcting problem, because after word of how these vendors
did gets out every chow truck that can crawl to Las Cruces will be
there next year.
We Can Put A Man On The Moon But We Can't Change The Weather
If there was a bug in the Kool-aid, it was the weather. The day
dawned clear and sunny, with very little wind, and everything
covered by the residue of the previous night's downpour. The
exhibitors were at work squaring away their exhibits before eight
in the morning, even though the public was three hours away. With
the grounds still empty and the beautiful combination of water and
sunlight, it was an ideal period for photography.
Too ideal to last... as the rising temperature evaporated the
standing water and clouds began forming, a gigantic fog bank came
cascading down the mountains and across the valley towards the
airport. Within minutes, it looked like someone had planted a bunch
of rockets on the set of a Sherlock Holmes movie.
The joke was that this weather, the rain and the fog, had all
been laid on to make the Starchaser team feel at home. Rain, fog...
what more could a Briton ask for?
Just as we were all praying for a little wind to clear the fog,
a little wind arrived and did just that. But it kept on growing,
and soon was cracking along at 25 knots, and gusting even
Exhibitors spent much of the afternoon chasing literature around
the tarmac. Maybe that can be an event in next year's X-Prize
Cup... but the not-too-funny part was the effect the wind had on
The Tripoli organization was going to fire three of its
high-powered large model rockets, including the V-2, the American
Flag rocket, and a rainbow-colored rocket that has already been to
30,000 feet. None of these were able to launch. Not only was the
wind high, it was towards downtown Las Cruces, and the Tripoli
rocketeers, from out of state, were not familiar with the area
(which complicates rocket recovery). Rockets cock into the wind
while ascending, but drift with it while descending. They tend to
end up well downwind.
Blast The Wind, Let's Go Flying
Two craft did fly despite the wind -- the manned EZ-Rocket
rocketplane and the unmanned Armadillo One. Rick Searfoss flew the
EZ-Rocket through his entire routine twice, with the audience
thrilling to the powerful sound of the twin-rocket plane.
The hard work by XCOR techs, or the sacrifices they made to the
rocket idols, or something, worked; because the frozen-valve
relight problem they'd had on a rehearsal flight on Friday did not
Both times, Searfoss glided down to a tricky landing in the
stiff winds and touched down to the sound of applause.
Armadillo One was a skosh less lucky. Aero-News observed this
machine's flight from the Armadillo Aerospace booth (watching it on
a Jumbotron with nervous team members). The winds were definitely
borderline for even the computer-stabilized Armadillo craft. In the
end the decision was made to launch.
The craft lifted vertically and translated a bit, seemingly
under perfect control. Everyone watching was impressed at seeing
the conical rocket, leaning slightly into the airflow, hold its
position in the teeth of the wind. It was an impressive display of
Armadillo's technology, at least to those who understood what they
All went perfectly until it came time to land. One leg of the
machine's four was off the edge of the small concrete pad that had
been built for it, and the instant it touched down, it flopped over
unceremoniously on its side, shutting itself off.
"It could be OK," one of the team members said. One of the legs
was visibly bent, but "nothing you can't fix with a hammer." But
then the Jumbotron cut away. The technician stood on a chair,
trying to see his rocket.
"If only I'd brought binoculars!" he fumed. I lent him my camera
with the telephoto lens, and using it as a spyglass he was able to
see the rocket. "They already have it back on its feet!" Optimism
surged through the booth: there was still a good chance of
completing Armadillo's two other scheduled flights of Armadillo
Alas, that was not to be. What first appeared to be an easily
repairable cracked fuel line, turned out to be a cracked valve
manifold. They didn't have the spare part necessary to repair it,
and couldn't get it on a Sunday afternoon. (In the run-up to the
event, almost every team that was using liquid fuel had found some
reason to deal with suppliers in Las Cruces or El Paso that furnish
valves and other hardware to the petroleum industry).
So Armadillo's single flight was all that they would get,
disappointing the spectators almost as much as the team. Only
insiders and industry followers, though, understand exactly what
Armadillo demonstrated on that one flight. Technology that can hold
a hover in one place in a 25-knot wind has a future.
The next event was intended to be a spectacular, and it was,
although, not as intended. As impressed as we were to watch the
ten-second test burn of Starchaser's Mk II, 7,000 lb thrust engine,
with its forty-foot tongue of yellow flame, we were looking forward
to the planned sixty-second burn of this engine.
The lox/kerosene bipropellant engine of the Starchaser engine
produces a much more visible flame than the lox/isopropyl alcohol
engine of the EZ-Rocket, so it's a sure crowd pleaser. But
something goes wrong, this time: a few seconds into the test run,
blam. It was spectacular alright, and firemen put out the fire, but
not before some of the grass was burned and great billows of black
smoke covered the area. Starchaser founder Steve Bennett took it in
stride: "We wanted to do a grand finale... so we thought we'd blow
our engine up."
All these significant events were conducted almost a quarter
mile from the line where the crowd was safely behind fences. Only a
very few persons were permitted into the ramp or launch area. (Even
the red "All Access" pass worn by Dr. Diamandis didn't get you out
One Little... Significant... Press Conference
Sometimes you get a press conference that seems to have a cast
of thousands. This one was like that: New Mexico's Rick Homans,
X-Prize's Dr Peter Diamandis, NASA's Brant Sponberg, and two NASA
astronauts, retiree Ken Cockrell, a shuttle pilot, and current
payload specialist Steve Robinson, who conducted the spacewalks on
the most recent Discovery mission (with JAXA astronaut Soichi
The point of the announcement was a NASA-X-Prize partnership on
future space prizes; Diamandis and Sponberg signed an agreement in
front of the press.
One key prize will be for high-velocity high-altitude reusable
suborbital rockets, called the Suborbital Payload Challenge; the
other, a vertical-take-off-and-landing prize for a future lunar
lander, is called the Suborbital Lunar Analog Challenge. It sounds
like it was written with Armadillo Aerospace's technology in
The prize rules are not final yet, and the amounts are subject
to Congressional meddling -- er, approval. NASA already offers a
number of prizes under its Centennial Challenge program, which
Sponberg heads, and was handing out a set of eight cards showing
how awarding prizes has advanced science in the past, and a
parallel series of cards promoting its Centennial Challenge prizes.
Many of those prizes are relatively small ($250,000). These new
prizes are expected to be much larger.
This initiative began in the administration of former NASA head
Sean O'Keefe. O'Keefe had a hard time getting funding for the
prizes, but the success of the X-Prize competition has brought home
to Congress the utility of such prizes to encourage R&D.
It Wasn't All Sparks And Flames
Principals of all the private space companies were very, very
accessible, not just to us in the press, but to all the public.
This was a chance to get your picture taken with Brian Feeney, or
Shuttle astronaut Steve Robinson, or talk to the actual designers
of all of these famous rockets.
The stage and Jumbotrons were used to enhance the experience,
and there was little dead air and no time the Jumbotron drew people
away from a "real" event.
Fortunately, given the youth demographic of the crowd, there
were a lot of activities for the younger set. There even were
human-propelled M&Ms walking around giving kids hugs. The
amusing thing is that the poor guy or gal working in the M&M
suit can't really see out, so they depend on a "seeing-eye human"
to lead 'em around. There were more space-related activities, too,
of course, including simulators and a chance to sit on a moon or
For the truly space-happy kid, the US Space Camp was on scene,
promoting its out-of-the-world summer camp experience.
There were lots of cool souvenirs to be had, but if you bought a
T-shirt from each space operation you'd have spent enough to start
your own. Best souvenirs: Armadillo Aerospace's "Armadillo
Droppings." When they blow up an engine, they study the pieces, and
then sell them off (sometimes, signed by the whole team). Great
gift for the guy that doesn't blow up enough rockets of his own to
keep himself in paperweights.
Many of the smaller exhibitors were behind the stage, the way
the site plan was set up. For them, this was a serious bust. They
probably got 30%, or less, of the traffic the main area got. People
didn't know that the space expo continued over there. There was a
signficant vendor presence back there, including some important
space entrepreneurs (such as the Romanian ARCA Orizont team,
finally revealing some details of their new variable-geometry
winged spacecraft, which has a shuttlecock recovery mode similar in
grand concept to, but entirely different in execution from, the
"carefree re-entry" of SpaceShipOne).
This event was largely sponsored by the State of New Mexico. The
State wins if it draws new business (it has and will). But this
reinforces the growing trend of states promoting space business.
Oklahoma is also pushing a new spaceport; theirs is oriented
towards conventional take-off-and-landing aerospacecraft.
The weather was a disappointment, but not a disaster. By the end
of the show, even the Starchaser folks were in good spirits and
were counting it a good show. The organizers were exhausted, but
happy; and the attendees I spoke to, from as near as Las Cruces and
as far as Pennsylvania, were pleased.