Nov 5, 2009 11:20 AM by Tim Scott
A team of rocketeers from Mojave, California are on their way to claim their million dollar X-Prize for winning the Northrop-Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.
In dramatic fashion, the Masten Space Systems team laid claim to the prize by successfully flying their rocket ship twice last Friday.
Why would NASA spend $2 million on a competition between a handful of space junkies?
"You have a bunch of people devoting enormous amounts of time and usually far more money than the prize itself is worth," said Doug Graham with Masten Space Systems.
"These are people who really aren't aerospace experts by trade, but have trained themselves," said NASA Engineer Darrin Baird.
"You have to be a privately-funded team, not a government," said Will Pomerantz with the X-Prize Foundation.
"It's great to see that sort of American tradition. It's almost like backyard inventors," added Graham.
Three privately-funded teams of rocketeers had a shot at winning the Northrop-Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.
The goal: Make two successful vertical takeoff and landing flights of three minutes each, within a two-and-a-half hour window and land each flight as close to the bulls-eye as possible.
The prize money came from NASA and the competition was managed by the X-Prize Foundation.
"What we're trying to do is incentivize a new industry of American companies, capable of vertical takeoff and vertical landing flight, in a very routine and reliable way," said Will Pomerantz with X-Prize Foundation.
It's not unlike the ten million dollars offered by the X-Prize Foundation in 2004.
Mojave aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan won it, by flying his privately-built SpaceShipOne into sub-orbit twice in two weeks.
The goal was to incentivize development of a space tourism industry in america.
The Lunar Lander Challenge does the same thing, but the focus is on commercial access to space, sending payloads into orbit at a fraction of the cost of government-run projects.
"We need this technology to build reusable rockets, which will cut the cost of getting to space by a gigantic factor," said Graham.
David Masten is CEO of Masten Space Systems, and winner of the Lunar Lander Challenge.
He moved to Kern County in 2003 to start up his fledgling aerospace firm and says it's only a matter of time before private firms start competing with governments for customers who want to get payloads into space.
"NASA has been around for about 50 years. It's been 40 years since we went to the moon. We're not any closer to having other people go to space, besides a handful of test pilots, some scientists and a couple of politicians. Everybody should be able to get to space, added Masten.
Using off-the-shelf technology, rocketeers in California and Texas have suffered numerous setbacks.
Now, the ultimate goal in all of this is to one day get back to the moon in a privately-funded spaceship.
The X-Prize foundation is offering a $30 million prize to the first firm to fly to the moon, deploy a robot to explore the lunar surface and beam back the video to earth.
So far, 21 companies from around the world have registered to compete.