by Ian Kluft

Thursday, October 19, 2006 - travel and arrival at the X-Prize Cup

Friday, October 20, 2006 - Day 1 of the X-Prize Cup

Rocket Belt
Armadillo Aerospace's first attempt at the Lander Challenge
High Power Rocket launches
Astronaut sightings

Saturday, October 21, 2006 - Day 2 of the X-Prize Cup

Coverage of the Tripoli Rocketry Association's launches
Armadillo Aerospace's Lunar Lander Challenge attempts 2 & 3
Masten Space Systems Static Engine Firings
A view of Las Cruces from 40,000 feet on the flight into El Paso, almost but not quite high enough to see the curvature of the Earth. A wide-view photo like this just begins to capture a slight curve on the horizon, which doesn't become obvious until you get to 60,000 feet. Unfortunately, that's higher than any current airliner can go. So if you want to see the curvature of the Earth, this won't do. You need a rocket. One of the "jumbotron" TV screens during the show setup at the Las Cruces Airport on Thursday. These always gave show attendees a view of the action whether they were up at the flight line or not.
I went to the 2006 X-Prize Cup in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I'll let you in on a secret - there was no "cup" at the X-Prize Cup. The name is still wishful thinking. It might become reality next year when the Rocket Racing League is supposed to have their first championship NASCAR-style race with rocket-powered airplanes.

The attendees of the show seemed to span a wide cross-section of people interested in rockets. There were everyone from NASA astronauts to aerospace engineers to rocketry hobbyists to local school kids, and everyone in between.

The X Prize Foundation is still figuring out how to organize a rocket and space themed event that's set up like an air show. They're trying to capture the kind of show that happenned in Mojave in 2004 for SpaceshipOne's suborbital flights to win the X-Prize.

Sometimes, particularly on the first day, the lack of organization showed enough for the crowd to notice. Other times you had to be behind the scenes to catch the chaos, such as launches that were scrubbed and not given another time slot to try again. For people who traveled a thousand miles or more to be part of the show, I can only imagine how frustrating that must have been. By the end of the show they seemed to be firing on almost all cylinders.

It must have been a tough thing to organize. One thing that was going well from the beginning was the slick media setup, with TV commentators viewed on "jumbotron" TV screens for the crowd and on a live webcast. Rumor has it that NASA TV wanted to air it live, but that got nixed by an exclusive media deal that Space.com arranged with the X-Prize Cup. That's disappointing but not entirely surprising. They've already got a reputation that they've got their price for anything.

That said, I had a great time. Anyone with enthusiasm for rockets could see past the organizational growing pains to the real stars of the show... the rockets, of course! And that made it all worth it.

My reason to go was to help my friends at Masten Space Systems. The company wanted to compete in the Lunar Lander Challenge but the construction and testing didn't come together fast enough. We anticipated some times that the full-time staff would be off doing the engine firings and they'd need some help to have people at the booth to answer questions.

Thursday, October 19, 2006 - travel and arrival at the X-Prize Cup

(See all my pictures from Thursday)

I have a number of photos of the trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico. Since Las Cruces doesn't have airline service, we had to fly into El Paso, Texas, which is on the far western tip of Texas right near the New Mexico border.

Traveling with me were Sean Lynch, who is also from San Jose, and James Robertson, who flew out of Orange County in Southern California and joined us in Phoenix for the second leg of the flight.

It was interesting to be able to get some pictures of Las Cruces and the airport on the way by, and then come back there again a few hours later after we landed. I annotated a Google Map to show how I got the aerial pictures of Las Cruces. I knew that I needed to have a window seat on the port (left) side of the plane to get a view of Las Cruces. I had gotten that seat in San Jose because it was also the side to get some pictures of Mojave (where Masten Space Systems is based.)

So during the one-hour flight from Phoenix to El Paso, after Interstate 10 came into view, I spotted Deming, New Mexico and knew that Las Cruces would be coming up. It was easy to visually follow I-10 from 39,000' as a line through the open desert. Then from behind the wing, the Las Cruces Airport and the town itself came into view and I started taking pictures. I annotated some arrows onto the map to show the directions some of the aerial photos were taken.

The approach to the El Paso Airport is very close to the Mexican border but remains in US airspace. Our descent took us north of El Paso, turning right over the vast Fort Bliss US Army base and back westbound to the airport. The El Paso Airport is a joint civilian and military facility at Fort Bliss.

When we got to the Las Cruces Airport around 4:30PM, the setup was still in progress. There turned out not to be much to help with so we took a look around. We knew we might not get much chance during the show.

We stayed at the airport until dark. By then everyone in our group was done with setup. Jon Goff said his parents were arriving in Las Cruces from Salt Lake. They met us at the airport and all of us went as a big group into town for dinner.

We covered a lot of distance since leaving the West Coast in the morning. But it was definitely a good day.

Friday, October 20, 2006 - Day 1 of the X-Prize Cup

Friday morning before dawn at the Masten Space Systems booth. On the right, the XA 0.1 lander is on display. If it had been done in time, it could have been competing in the Lunar Lander Challenge.
(See all my pictures from Friday)

Friday we arrived earlier than "bright and early". It was "dark and way too early." That's the only way I can describe it. But that was when everyone with show credentials was supposed to arrive - well before the doors opened to the public at 7AM. And in effect that would also be before the parking ran out at the airport. Members of the public had to park in larger lots in town or at the county fairgrounds and take a bus to the airport.

As the gates opened to the first members of the public, I was soon answering questions for a very intelligent 15-year-old and his mom who had traveled from Fort Lauderdale, Florida for the show. He asked questions about Masten Space Systems and the XA 0.1 lander prototype that was on display. It was obvious he was already very interested in rockets. But I could tell that getting to see the equipment was still helping to inspire him too. He's obviously got a bright future ahead of him, probably as an engineer I would guess.

He was the first of the day. But there were many more young minds eager to learn everything they could. It seemed like almost every school in southern New Mexico had a field trip on Friday to the X Prize Cup. The kids all had a long day but they continued to ask great questions which showed how interested they were. It's a rewarding experience to be a part of something which is inspiring so many kids like that.

The Masten Space Systems team got a short 30-second static motor firing for the crowd. It had been delayed for an F-117 fly-by from nearby Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo.

Of the events going on that day, one of the first rocket launches was a Tripoli high-power (hobby) rocket. It made a very nice ascent. But on the way down it didn't deploy its parachute. It might have been because the odd restrictions with airport access forced them to leave the rockets on the pad overnight in order to launch in the morning. They think some of the overnight dew soaked in and expanded some phenolic or cardboard parts and jammed the nose cone on so it couldn't release in flight. So don't leave your rockets out overnight before launching them.
[rocket belt in flight] [rocket belt in flight]
The rocket belt is an amazing sight.

Rocket Belt

As things moved on in the morning, the first flight of the "rocket belt" (actually more of a rocket backpack) wowed the crowd but also had them holding their ears. It's an amazing thing to see, even though it's nearly 50-year-old technology. Because literally you can watch a person fly. The rocket is just in his backpack. But before you think of using one of these to commute to work or school, it only has less than 30 seconds of fuel. The crowd loved it anyway.

It isn't quite Superman. But it's the closest thing to it you'll ever see with your own eyes.

Rocket belts have appeared in James Bond movies and even at the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Some fiction movies make them look like they can fly for long distances, which they actually can't do.
[Armadillo's Pixel lander]
Armadillo's first attempt at the lander prize

Armadillo Aerospace's first attempt at the Lander Challenge

Armadillo Aerospace of Dallas, Texas made their first attempt at the NASA Lunar Lander Challenge, pursuing a $300K prize. They flew their lander "Pixel" for the Level 1 challenge. The rules require the lander vehicle to be taken from the official starting line, truck it to a launch pad away from the spectators, perform a 90-second hover flight 50m up and 100m over to land at another pad, refuel, fly back for a similar 90-second flight, and truck it back to the starting line. And that all has to be done within 2-1/2 hours.

On the first attempt, the first leg of the flight went fine until the landing. It came down too hard and broke off all four of its landing gear. So that was it for the first attempt. The Armadillo team reportedly worked late into the night taking the gear off Pixel's identical twin lander "Texel" and repairing Pixel with them so they could try again Saturday.

It was quite a drama to watch, whether you tried to watch the lander directly at a distance or watched the close-up video on the Jumbotron TV screens. The difficulty of this task didn't seem to be lost on anyone. It left enormous anticipation for the next day's attempt.
[Sterling Edmunds' Phoenix XL rocket launches] [Phoenix XL descending under parachute]
Sterling Edmunds' Phoenix XL high-power rocket

High Power Rocket launches

Most of the people in the crowd didn't know what to think when the announcers said there was going to be a "Tripoli launch". The announcer was just reading the schedule and may not have known either. Of course, I knew. And let me explain because you'll need to know to understand this part of the X Prize Cup.

I recognized it because I'm a member of the Tripoli Rocketry Association. It's named for a shortening of "tripolitan" since it started in a tri-cities area of Pennsylvania before growing to a national and international organization. TRA has local chapters (called prefectures) all across the USA and Canada and in many other countries around the world. High Power Rocketry (HPR) is the next step up in hobby rockets above model rockets.

I'm a member of the Tripoli prefecture for Northern California and Northern Nevada, called AeroPAC, an abbreviation for the Association of Experimental Rocketry of the Pacific. We always have someone launching large rockets at AeroPAC because our launch site about 2 hours north of Reno, Nevada is the Black Rock Desert, often called the best high-power launch site on Earth. It has a 30 mile long flat-flat-flat dry lakebed and uncontested airspace that the FAA lets us reserve all day up to 100,000'. We have the privilege and responsibility of playing host to rocketeers from around the region and around the world, when they need that kind of launch site for big projects.

At the X Prize Cup on Friday, the launch of Sterling Edmunds' Phoenix XL was only attempting to go up about 3 miles up at a maximum speed of twice the speed of sound. It's quite a bit larger than the average high-power rocket, requiring a Level 3 (the highest) high-power rocketry certification. But it wasn't the largest high-power rocket by any means.

The Phoenix XL with its Q13450 motor, was the rocket with the most thrust of any that flew at the 2006 X Prize Cup. It lifted off a half mile away from the crowd with a loud roar even at that distance. It was obvious there was something significant about it. Many in the crowd said they suddenly understood what rocketry enthusiasts see in the hobby.

It was very impressive. And even better, the flight was perfect. The ascent was straight. The motor's burn was exactly right. The drogue and main parachutes came out at the proper times in the flight, prompted by the on-board flight computer. When you put so much work into a project like this, a flawless flight and recovery is the ultimate reward for anyone in the hobby. Mr Edmunds and his friends who helped him were undoubtedly celebrating after that flight. They earned it!

The TV announcers at the X Prize Cup didn't seem to understand the big deal about it. But I'll get into that in the presentation of the Saturday launches.
[Dr Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 astronaut] [Dr Michael Foale and USN Captain Ken Bowersox]
Dr Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 moon-walking astronaut and long-time advocate of private rockets, watches Armadillo Aerospace begin their first attempt in the NASA Lunar Lander Challenge. Mission Specialist Dr Michael Foale and Shuttle Commander Ken Bowersox (Captain, US Navy) each had a turn serving as Commander of the International Space Station.

Astronaut sightings

On Friday there were two times I saw astronauts at the show.

The first one was while the rocket belt was setting up and just before Armadillo Aerospace tried their first attempt at the Lunar Lander Challenge. Of all people to see in the crowd watching the lander challenge, from a distance I saw Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, one of the first two people to walk on the Moon. Since leaving NASA, Dr Aldrin has been a long-time proponent of private rockets.

I first saw Dr Aldrin speak in 1999 at the USS Hornet museum in Alameda, California on the 30th anniversary of Hornet's recovery of Apollo 11. He spoke about his rocket-related business plans at the time. Then he was addressing a crowd of a thousand on the carrier deck. But here he's just one of the crowd.

I can imagine that he must have had a lot of satisfaction with what he saw at the X Prize Cup. Many ideas he's been promoting are finally starting to gain momentum.

The second time I crossed paths with astronauts at the show was while I was at the Masten Space Systems booth. We were near the exit from the TV stage. I recognized Mike Foale because I had traveled to Florida in 1997 to watch the launch of of STS-86 which was the rescue mission to Mir, and Foale's ride home from Mir.

Since I live in California, a trip to a shuttle launch is quite a journey. Few ever get the chance. And it's usually a once-in-a-lifetime thing for those who do. Though I've seen three re-entries in the California sky, I've only been to the one launch, which was the one going to pick him up. So obviously I remembered his name and face because of that.

When I saw Foale there, he had just been interviewed on the jumbotron TV screens about his experience aboard the Russian Mir Space Station during the June 1997 collision with a Progress supply craft. Foale is the only NASA astronaut who served long-duration missions on both Mir and the International Space Station (ISS). On ISS he was the station commander.

I mentioned it was only the second time I had met an astronaut. He pointed next to him and said, "he's also an astronaut." The other one introduced himself as Ken Bowersox, whose name I immediately recognized as a Space Shuttle commander. Though not having his biographical web page in front of me, I didn't recall at the time that, like Foale, he has also been a commander of ISS.

They let me take a quick picture. In all fairness they said they were on their way to another event. So I respectfully left them alone after the quick photo. I'd have liked to have more chance to chat. But then again, they were among thousands of people who might want a piece of their time. Hopefully I'll get another chance eventually.

I should mention that the picture of Buzz Aldrin in the crowd didn't count as meeting him, since that could have been open for misinterpretation with the quote from the conversation with Mike Foale. But the first time I met an astronaut was only this past April. I was introduced at the Space Access 2006 convention in Phoenix to former shuttle commander Rick Searfoss, who is now the chief test pilot for XCOR Aerospace in Mojave. I have a continuously-increasing number of friends who work at XCOR.

Saturday, October 21, 2006 - Day 2 of the X-Prize Cup

(See all my pictures from Saturday)

Saturday was another dark and way too early morning. We got breakfast on site and got the booth ready again. With everything ready at the booth, I had an additional project to try this morning...
[Art Hoag's 'The Dream is Alive'] [Mac and Steve Heller's 'Aftershock']
Art Hoag's "The Dream is Alive" was the first high-power launch on Saturday morning on an N4000 motor. It was a flawless flight. Mac and Steve Heller's "Aftershock" flew a moment later. This flight was also flawless on an N3000 motor.
[Woody Hoburg's 'Flag Rocket'] [Art Hoag's 'Event Horizon']
Later in the morning, Woody Hoburg's 20-foot tall "Flag Rocket", painted with stars and wavy stripes, lifts off with an O3800 motor. It was another flawless supersonic flight that wowed the crowd. Art Hoag's second rocket "Event Horizon" flew on a cluster of 3 N4000 motors. It capped the day's high-power rocket flights with yet another flawless flight.
[Woody Hoburg (right) and helper James] [Art Hoag (left) interviewed on camera by Richard Weise]
Woody Hoburg (right) and his friend James who helped with the Flag Rocket are all smiles after the successful flight, and probably a bit relieved that the TV interview is over. Both are students at MIT. Art Hoag (left) is interviewed on camera by Richard Weise after the successful flight of his 3-motor rocket, "Event Horizon". On the truck behind them flies the flag of Hoag's home state, Colorado.

Coverage of the Tripoli Rocketry Association's launches

I ended up having an unexpected role in the coverage of the Tripoli Rocketry Association's high-power rocket launches. The first day's coverage showed that the organization needed some help interpreting what they were seeing when an HPR launch happened.

For example, when Sterling Edmunds' Phoenix XL launched flawlessly on a very impressive Q13450 motor, the most thrust of any rocket at this year's X Prize Cup, the TV commentators started out correctly observing that it was a spectacular launch. But during the descent they weren't able to do any better than anticlimactic remark, "I don't know why it has two parachutes", when the team who built the rocket was celebrating a 100% successful flight out of view of the TV cameras.

By the way, why two parachutes? It's really the designer's choice. As long as they add up to enough drag to slow it down, 1, 2 or 3 are fine. Using two can can cost less a single much-larger parachute. Sometimes it's intended for redundancy in case one fails to inflate. Or sometimes the builder just likes how the parachutes pull away from each other. And the Apollo capsules used three parachutes - so why not?

At the end of the first day, I offered to help on that end of things for the second day. I'm a Tripoli member and Level 2 high-power rocketry certified. And more to the point, many times I've been the launch control officer for the AeroPAC launches at Nevada's Black Rock Desert. So I've launched rockets bigger than they would be flying at the X-Prize Cup and been the one talking on the PA system at our launches.

They accepted my offer to help.

So on Saturday morning I waded through some of the X Prize Cup bureaucracy to find who had the flight cards with all the info on the Tripoli rockets. I ran into Tripoli Rocketry Association board member (and former president) Dick Embry who got me started by jotting down the names of the rocketeers and their rockets and the types of motors each one was flying. If nothing else, it would give me something to work with.

But as I continued to look for actual copies of the flight cards, it was a lot of, "go there and talk to XXX," who would send me to someone else, until I reached a dead end and was told that Flight Operations was "crazy" to send me to them and to get out of the Production trailer. I was standing outside trying to consider what else I could do but give up on helping these people, when someone emerged very apologetically from the door I had just left, with the flight cards I had been looking for. I photocopied them and returned theirs to them. That whole thing left me a bit rattled. But it turned out to be worth the effort. And we can probably do a lot better next year with time to plan this.

Fortunately that was an exception - most everyone was helpful. One of the production staff Laura personally helped me find Richard Weise who would be the on-camera person covering the Tripoli launches. He had been very impressed with Friday's flight of Phoenix XL and wanted to know more anyway. So he was great to talk with about it. I gave him an introduction to high-power rocketry. After I got the flight cards, I showed him how to read the info on them, and then left them with him.

A credit to Richard... when I explained these things to him, he got it. So I had a great time talking with him and helping him cover the high-power launches.

We met at the Tripoli site on the flight line each time there was a launch coming up. I stood by in case he needed to have someone to ask questions on camera to. But each time as the crew came back from the launch pads, I was able to find the rocket builder for Richard. Then there was no doubt that was the person to ask about each rocket. But in pointing them out, I sort of also scuttled my own chances to be on TV.

Actually, I hadn't met any of these rocketeers before. We all come from different parts of the country. But I had some tricks. For example, at the first launch on Saturday, I knew from the flight card that the rocket builder was Art Hoag from Colorado and his rocket was called "The Dream is Alive". As the group arrived from the pad, I figured most of them knew each other. Lacking any other clues of who was whom, I focused on the person holding the tracking antenna. I knew that would be a person the rocket builder trusted. Sure enough he's a good friend of Art and pointed him out to us.

At that point I had already briefed Richard on the fact that every one of these high-power rockets are always a big personal project, usually requiring help from many friends. Richard asked Art on camera for the crowd about the work that went into building it, and how he felt in the anticipation for the launch. As the launch happened, the cameras captured the whole thing as nervous anticipation turned to celebration as the rocket flew straight as an arrow, through the speed of sound, coasting up past motor burnout to the apogee of the flight. Richard knew to ask him when the drouge chute and main chute would have to come out for it to be a success. And both happened right on cue. Everything worked. You couldn't have had a happier group or a more moving view on television. Their reactions told the story of how much preparation went into the flight. The crowd of thousands watching got to understand what was really going on.

But being right there myself, I didn't see the reaction in the rest of the crowd. It wasn't until the end of the day that I heard what an impact this had. The four Tripoli launches each became emotional high points for the thousands of spectators during the day. Though providing a different kind of excitement, they were right up there with the rocket belt and the Armadillo lander prize attempts in contributing to everyone's enjoyment of the day's events.

When I set out to help with the HPR coverage, I couldn't have imagined it would turn out that well.

I'm proud to have helped with that. Next year, we'll have to actually plan this kind of help ahead of time. But as far as the audience saw, they got a great view of the high-power rockets and the anticipation and excitement among the people who built them. It looked to them like the coverage was planned that way all along. So it worked!
[The Armadillo Aerospace crew waves to crowd] [Pixel's second attempt at the lander challenge] [Pixel's third attempt at the lander challenge]
The Armadillo Aerospace crew waves to an enthusiastic crowd as they bring the "Pixel" lander from the Lunar Lander Challenge starting line to the launch pad. Pixel made two attempts at the Lunar Lander Challenge on Saturday. To succeed it needed to make two 90 second hover flights between two concrete pads 100 meters apart and return to the starting line within 2-1/2 hours. The day's first attempt ended when Pixel landed partly off the pad. The day's second attempt damaged a landing gear, and crashed on the return flight.

Armadillo Aerospace's Lunar Lander Challenge attempts 2 & 3

The major events of the day were Armadillo Aerospace's two attempts at Level 1 of the NASA Lunar Lander Challenge for a $300K prize.

The crowd gave a very enthusiastic sendoff both times as they left the starting line. The Armadillo crew waved as the crane truck took them and the Pixel lander to the launch pad.

The day's first attempt looked successful to the audience, except that Pixel landed with two legs off the pad. The judges ruled it a disqualification. So they would have to start over again. There was only one more flight window during the contest later in the morning.

On the day's second attempt, the flight again looked successful. But one of the gear broke on landing. Since no repairs are allowed during the contest, they were allowed to just place the lander on the loose gear and try to fly it. On liftoff the loose gear was blown clear before Pixel had enough thrust to get off the ground. It flipped over and crashed. To the audience, those of us looking directly at the lander (such as me taking pictures) only saw a cloud of dust and no Pixel. Those watching the screens saw it flip over.

It was over. For this year anyway.

Armadillo Aerospace's leader John Carmack wrote on the group's web site that he was "taken aback" by how almost everyone's first words to him were "congratulations", even though they hadn't won. While he was out there remote-control flying the lander, he didn't see how impressed the audience was with the whole thing. The feeling was that they had made an enormous accomplishment doing the complete hover flights that they did. Records were set. Nevermind the contest rules, congratulations were in order.

I can think of an analogy... Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin said in interviews over the years that when they returned from that first flight to the Moon, they realized what a shared global experience was happening around the world watching Apollo 11. He recalled telling fellow moon-walker Neil Armstrong, "We missed the whole thing." It had an enormous effect on all the people who watched it.

This time Buzz Aldrin was one of the spectators - presumably he didn't miss a thing. John Carmack and the rest of the Armadillo crew were the ones going through that experience. They were in the middle of the action so they missed the audience's amazed reaction as they watched what they were doing.

Though I said it in person to them there, I'll say it again... Congratulations guys!
[Masten Space Systems 95-second static firing] [Masten Space Systems 75-second static firing]
Masten Space Systems made two static engine firings on Saturday. The first one was 95 seconds, which proved the motors are ready for the 90-second flights of the Lunar Lander Challenge. The second firing was 75 seconds. Both firings could have gone longer but were limited by the fuel quantity loaded at the test stand.

Masten Space Systems Static Engine Firings

As I mentioned, I was at XPC to help my friends at Masten Space Systems. MSS was an entrant in the Lunar Lander Challenge, but had to drop out of the competition a few weeks before the X Prize Cup. The XA 0.1 vehicle didn't come together in time to fly there.

The X Prize Cup allowed a change of plans to have static engine firings instead. The 30-second Friday firing was supposed to be the first of several to demonstrate restartability of the motors. But as soon as they stopped the first firing, the show staff misunderstood and went on to something else.

So on Saturday, the first firing ran for 95 seconds until the fuel at the stand ran dry. It proved the motors could handle the burn time needed for the challenge.

The second firing, with a smaller quantity of fuel loaded, ran for 75 seconds.

I got pictures of the tests. This was the point where I earned the flight line access that Dave Masten arranged for me. I found spots where I didn't have the fence in the way, but I also wasn't in the way of any other spectators. So that turned out to be right in front of NASA's F/A-18 - it wasn't taking any pictures.

One of the features of the motor that allows these burn times is that it achieves a "thermal steady state". The internal cooling works well enough that the motor reaches a steady maintainable temperature and just stays there as the motor continues to run. It isn't easy to do. Not surprisingly, some people in the audience noticed the significance of this demonstration.

At next year's X Prize Cup, we intend to be part of the competition.