On Friday, only days after NASA tested its next big-ticket rocket, a ragtag group of space junkies in the Mojave Desert flew a bargain-basement rocket ship that could be the real future of spaceflight in the 21st century.
Masten Space Systems sent its 10-foot-tall Xoie (pronounced Zoey) rocket soaring over a patch of scrub desert that stood in for the moon, a move that appeared to vault the company into the lead in the $2-million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.
The contest is sponsored by NASA as part of its long-range effort to give a boost to private companies in the hope that they will someday take on such routine space tasks as delivering cargo to the International Space Station. Four teams registered for a total of six prize-winning attempts.
The potential savings to taxpayers is significant: NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Ares 1X, which was test-launched Tuesday, has cost tens of millions of dollars. Xoie and her predecessors have cost about $2 million.
Company owner Dave Masten, 41, who is unqualified to be an astronaut because he smokes, has a more ambitious, and personal, agenda than simply hauling cargo: He wants to travel in space on his own ship.
“Solar system domination,” he joked in an interview this week at the Mojave Air and Space Port, site of the competition. “Nothing less will do.”
The Lunar Lander Challenge requires competitors to launch unmanned rockets from a pad, fly to a different pad and land, then repeat the process, all within a specified period of time.
There are four prizes in all, totaling $2 million.
With just minutes to spare of the allotted two hours and 15 minutes, the rocket touched down on its return flight, settling only inches from the center of the landing pad.
That appeared to move Masten into first place ahead of Armadillo Aerospace, operated by video game developer John Carmack of Dallas.
The competition isn’t over. The deadline is today, with one more team, Unreasonable Rocket, set to try for prize money.