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The winning lunar lander prepares to launch The lunar lander Xoie, built by Masten Space Systems, prepares to launch from the Mojave Air and Space Port. Xoie won first prize in the 2009 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X Prize Challenge. (Photo: William Pomerantz/ X PRIZE Foundation)

Lunar Lander Inventors Win Big

Two teams win the Lunar Lander X Prize for building machines that could land on the moon

By Robbin Friedman | null null , null
Armadillo Aerospace's lunar lander, Scorpius, in flight in Caddo Mills, Texas. (Photo: William Pomerantz/X Prize Foundation)
Armadillo Aerospace's lunar lander, Scorpius, in flight in Caddo Mills, Texas. (Photo: William Pomerantz/X Prize Foundation)

Who will design the next spacecraft that lands on the moon? You might guess a team of scientists from NASA, the United States government space agency. But could you believe it might turn out to be a computer game programmer and a few part-time helpers?

On Thursday, the X Prize Foundation awarded the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X Prize at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Two teams of inventors won a total of $1.5 million for crafting and flying robotic machines that could land on the moon. NASA provided the prize money for the contest.

Masten Space Systems from Mojave, California, won $1 million for successfully flying a spacecraft nicknamed Xoie (pronounced ZOE-ee). Armadillo Aerospace, the Rockwall, Texas-based team headed by a computer game programmer, won the $500,000 second prize, with a lander called Scorpius.

A lunar lander is designed to separate from a spacecraft orbiting the moon. Its job is to carry crew or instruments to the surface of the moon, where they can collect information before returning to the orbiting craft. To win the Lunar Lander X Prize, teams had to build a machine that could handle a simulated, or imitation, moon landing. The landers had to rise more than 160 feet and stay aloft for at least three minutes while flying to a rocky landing pad. After landing, they had to lift off again and return to their starting point.

“Winning contests is fun,” said David Masten of Masten Space Systems, “but we won’t rest until we’re flying a fleet of vehicles into space.”

The Private Space Race Heats Up

The X Prize Foundation holds contests to motivate private industry to tackle major technological challenges. NASA partnered with the X Prize Foundation for the Lunar Lander contest. The goal of the contest was to encourage private groups to advance, or move forward, space technology. The winning innovations could help future missions to the moon land safely and gather information.

The X Prize Foundation also partners with private companies. In 2004, the Ansari X Prize awarded $10 million for the first private space flight with a human aboard. The winning team built a spacecraft that flew three people more than 62 miles above the Earth’s surface.

In 2010, Internet giant Google plans to award the Google Lunar X Prize: $20 million to the first private team that lands a robot on the moon. The robot must be able to travel 500 meters on the moon’s surface and send video and images back to Earth.

The X Prize program has created a lot of excitement. So far, more than $1 billion has been spent on developing private space travel. Maybe before too long, you’ll be able to take a seat on a spaceship to the moon!

NASA Looks for Citizen Inventors

Through the Lunar Lander contest and other competitions, NASA hopes to tap into the genius of people they call “citizen inventors.” Just a few weeks ago, a team led by college student Paul Ventimiglia won $500,000 for building a robotic machine to dig moon dirt. The space agency has also offered prize money for challenges like creating an improved astronaut glove.

But the contests do more than spur new inventions. They also get people, especially kids, excited about space. According to NASA head Charles Bolden Jr., the agency wants to “inspire the next generation to accept the challenge of moving America to the next level of human exploration.”

Perhaps you won’t buy a ticket for a trip to the moon. Maybe you’ll design the spaceship instead.

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