Well, now that I’m back from Las Cruces, I figured it might be good to wrap up the Masten Space Systems X-Prize Cup 2006 saga, picking up where I left off.
Before I go into the more detailed story, I’d like to thank the X-Prize Cup people, and particularly our pad manager Alan Perryman and our safety officer, Vince Hill. Alan and Vince were extremely professional, and were a lot of fun to work with. They’ve got a standing invitation to come out and join us for a test whenever they want. The rest of the X-Prize Cup volunteers gave it their best, and at least by the end of Friday had really hit their stride. Thursday and Friday morning were a little bit rough around the edges, but they came through for us in the end.
Anyhow, Thursday, the weather was much nicer, and we set about getting the trailer ready for the show. We made a quick fix to the PLC code (to deal with potential network issues–which turned out to be a really prescient decision) and then ran the test cases to verify that the thing did exactly what it was supposed to do (both nominally and in emergencies). We then spent most of the rest of the morning waiting for clearance to take our trailer out to the firing area. We were told that starting at 2pm there would be a two hour window in which we could do as many firings as we wanted to. We were hoping to get the trailer out there sufficiently before 2pm so that we could have it setup, loaded, and ready to fire as soon as the airfield was closed. We really didn’t anticipate being so much further ahead of the game that we’d have time to sit around and chat.
As it is though, that was rather fortuitous, because we got to speak with some rather interesting people, such as Professor Yoshifumi Inatani of JAXA who helped manage their RVT program. He recognized the landing gear concept, was obviously flattered to hear that we borrowed our throttle control algorithm from them, and generally liked our approach. If I understood him correctly, it sounds like they are investigating another generation of RVT that has a 4-engine design similar to ours–since it allows you to have engine-out functionality (and also makes relights for landing less dicey).
Unfortunately, our preparation day didn’t end up going as smoothly as we had hoped. Mostly due to the kind of logistics problems to be expected when trying to organize such a complex show with a mostly volunteer force. Simple stuff like miscommunications leading to getting the wrong size, number, and pressures for our pressurant gas cylinders. We’ll just have to make sure next year that we are more thorough in our advanced coordination. In the end, due to delays waiting for people at the fueling depots, and other such, we were able to leak check our system, test the igniters, and reinsulate all the lines, but were told to clear the field before we had a chance to fire the engine even once. We really didn’t want to have our first engine firing after that long of a road trip be in front of several thousand people, but we did our best with the situation we had.
That evening my parents arrived with my four youngest siblings, and the whole team ended up going out to dinner with them (along with Richard Wills, the pad manager for Armadillo’s flights). The Mexican food was good, albeit a bit spicey. It was nice having them there, I was really surprised with how interested my dad was in the whole alt.space thing. He’s an Electrical Engineer of sorts by training (worked at HP for 12 years or so), but apparently he had a little bit of the space bug in him after all.
Friday morning we had to be at the airport at 5am. It was cold, it was early, and we were all quite tired. It was kind of cool getting to see the Armadillo guys off from the propellant depot. Those guys are good friends of ours, and I was glad we had a chance to wish them luck. While we were chatting with them, John was mentioning the issues with his wireless communications that others have talked about, and I was rather glad that we had made the software tweak on Thursday that we did. As it is, that’ll be something we’ll need to make sure we deal with for next year.
After seeing them off, we were able to load up and get out to our site. We got our stuff setup, and ready to fire over an hour early, going meticulously through every possible thing on the checklist (and adding a few paranoid precautions on top of that). As it is though, we ended up waiting for over two hours from when we were ready to go to when we got the go-ahead to load LOX and light the thing off. We had been planning on doing two short firings to verify the throttle positions for our engine (and to make sure nothing was wrong), and then go on to a 30 second firing. Unfortunately, right after the two short firings, we were told to stand down for an F-117 flyby. After the flyby was over we weren’t given the opportunity to finish our 5 minute session. There was also apparently some confusion on the media side, and the Jumbotron ended up looking at someone else’s hardware, and apparently they had no idea that we were planning on doing to short firings first, and thought that we had had some sort of engine failure.
Fortunately, the X-Prize people got more into their stride by the afternoon. We went out, and had a picture perfect 30 second firing. I got it on video, and it was so rock-solid stable that the only clue that you weren’t looking at a still photo of the shock diamonds was the slight vibration of the camera, and the violent flapping of the weeds and bushes in front of the engine. They announced it better too. We were hoping to do a quick relight after that, and do another long firing (to tank depletion–probably another 60 seconds), but one of our sensors on our stand informed us that the heat soak was bad enough that the igniter IPA valve was outside of its operating temperature, so we decided to not chance things. We don’t need relight capabilities quite yet, so we hadn’t gone out of our way to get higher temperature solenoid coils and plungers, but that’s something we’ll probably take care of before we fly anything that needs the relight capability. We’d rather have a flawless day than to push our luck in front of a crowd.
While we were up to that, there were lots of other things going on. Stuff like Rocket Belt flights, an Armadillo flight attempt, some Tripoli launches, some Rocket Truck and Rocket Bike firings, and some other flybys of various sorts. All in all a good day. Between our two firing sessions I also got to man the booth a bit. Met some commenters on the blog (including Ferris Valyn), some other bloggers (Dan Schmelzer of Carried Away), as well as several former DC-X guys. I think I also got to speak with some of Anouseh Ansari’s relatives (though Robin Snelson didn’t actually introduce them that way), and got to chat with some of our other friends in the industry. Didn’t get to meet “Mr X” of the Chairforce Engineer blog, or Josh Gigantino, or Elon Musk. But you can’t win them all I guess.
The rest of the day was a blur. I managed to pull myself away from things a bit once or twice to go look at displays, but what with being rather stressed out about our testing, I don’t recall a whole bunch of it. Going all day on just one muffin and a small thing of Orange Juice probably didn’t help either. My family took off early in the evening, and I think I ended up crashing out fairly early (I can’t remember now).
The next day was just as early, and I was even more sleep deprived. We once again got to see the Armadillo guys off from the propellant depot area. They had managed to patch their vehicle together in time for another day worth of flight attempts. We were all pulling for them.
Things on the field went a lot smoother on Saturday. Apparently things had been figured out so that they didn’t have to evacuate us off the field for every single Tripoli flight or static firing. So we got to watch some Tripoli flights from close by, as well as Armadillo’s flight off in the distance. Our firing in the morning went picture perfect. We had topped the LOX tank all the way up (literally), and openned a big ol’ can of hot flamey stuff. 94.3 seconds of some of the most stable hot flamey stuff I’ve ever seen. Ran the LOX tank all the way to depletion. It was a sight to behold. The only fly in the ointment was that when I went out to the camera, it turns out the film had run out only a few seconds before ignition! The longest firing our company has had to date, and one of our best shows yet, and the camera decides to run out of film. What are the odds?
After that firing, we got to spend a bit of time back at the booth, and checking out some of the other displays. I stopped by the Rocketplane/Kistler booth and chatted with some of the guys there a bit, visited our friends at Frontier Astronautics, chatted with Steve Harrington of Flometrics, and had a run-in with Korey Kline of eAc. He didn’t believe our Isp numbers we’re quoting for the engine (240-250s on the high end), and more or less questioned our integrity or competence. He said “we’ll see when you actually try to fly it how much performance you really get”. Indeed.
Still didn’t get any lunch on Friday. Too nervous. We ended up heading out to our test site right after Armadillo flew the first leg of their third prize attempt. We didn’t hear about the broken leg until afterwards. We got our test trailer setup again for firing. This time we were going to take a bit of a risk and try to do two short (3 second) firings to tune in the engine at a lower throttle setting, and then go after a 120-180 second firing if we could find a stable low throttle setting soon enough. Right as we were about to start LOX loading, Armadillo had their accident. From where we were standing we were worried they had popped another engine. We were really bummed out for those guys, and the thought hadn’t sunken in yet, that that meant both prizes were going to be wide open for next year. After the fire at their site was out, and the emergency over, we went to load LOX. It turns out that the dewar didn’t have quite enough left in it for a full tank of LOX this time, but we figured that’d be ok with a long half-throttle run. Who’s really going to pick nits about the difference between a 150 second firing and a 180 second one?
Then we got a call from flight ops that the Masten team and the Orion team were to clear the field–the show people felt there was only enough time for one thing left, and felt the Tripoli launch would be more important. We were really crushed, but followed orders and headed back to the flight line. We were only something like 1 minute away from being able to start our routine, and the Orion guys were also only a few minutes away themselves. Ian walked off in disgust. Just when we were about to abandon hope of getting a last firing in, one of the Orion guys brought up an interesting point. Apparently their truck was loaded with Nitrous, and the detanking system for their truck was slow enough that it’d take 3 hours for them to completely safe the truck if they didn’t fire. Since the truck is considered hazardous until all the oxidizer is out of it, the airfield would’ve been forced to remain closed for another three hours if they didn’t empty the nitrous tanks the “right way”. Needless to say, between that fact, and the fact that both of our teams were within 5 minutes of being able to fire our engines, we were able to persuade them to see things our way.
I ran off and grabbed Ian, and we jumped into Dave’s truck as soon as the Tripoli launch was done. We raced out there, repressurized the stand, and had every ready to go within about two minutes. We decided to just bump the settings back to what we had used for the previous firings (with the LOX setting bumped down one notch since we only had a partial tank, and since the smaller helium bottles they had given us were also already at much lower pressure than we usually liked). We were informed that the Orion guys would fire first, then we would get a 15 second countdown, and then we’d get to fire. The orion truck went off right on time, and then when our time came, we pressed the button and held our breath. At least for the first few seconds–holding your breath for 74 seconds isn’t highly reccomended. The X-Prize Cup guys came through in the end, and Orion and MSS delivered a grand finale.
Well, ok there was that F/18 flyby (which passed only about 50 feet directly over our heads–I’ll post some pictures when I have them), but that doesn’t count. It ain’t a rocket.
After we packed up, and headed back to the propellant depot, I bumped into one of our friends from XCOR. Due to the helium tanks starting off so low, we ended up getting some feed-system coupling induced instability toward the end of the run. Apparently the XCOR guys had been worried that our engine was going to come apart if we didn’t shut her down. When our pressurant system does it’s job the engine runs just fine, but I also like knowing that we build our engines robust enough that they can take even a fairly roudy combustion instability and just keep on running. Belt/Suspenders/Duct-Tape as Randall would say.
After hauling our trailer back, offloading the propellants, and taking the trailer off of Dave’s truck hitch, we headed back to speak with the Armadillo guys at their staging area. I asked Russ what had happened, and he told me about the landing gear leg breaking off, and their attempt at a return flight. I was really disappointed that they didn’t manage to walk away with some prize money, but they seemed to be taking it in stride. Their flights had been amazing to watch, and for this being their first four times trying to fly the thing off the tether, and their first times trying to do horizontal translations and ground landings, I think they did fairly well. As John said, if they had had another day or two, they probably could have patched things up and pulled it off, but it looks like it’ll be next year before they try again.
Randall, who had been their safety officer, looked beat. I told him that he looks like he got himself some more grey hairs this last week, and then quickly added that I think I had earned myself a few as well.
After most of the people had had a chance to congratulate John, and take pictures, I commented to John that it looks like we’d have to give him some competition this next year, and he replied “Yeah, we’ll make you guys work hard for second place”, and then jokingly said that he was “throwing down the gauntlet”. We’ve got a long way to go, and only a year to do it in, but I really hope that we can be out there next year flying our vehicles too. I’m looking forward to the flyoff.
Anyhow, the rest of the evening also went pretty cool. Dave and I were with the Armadillo guys, when they let us in to take some Armadillo team pictures in front of the LEM hardware. They let us take some pictures from up close, which was kind of cool. Definitely an interesting design, though I’m sure that with 50 years of technology improvement, we could do a lot better. Alas, NASA seems not to have learned all the right lessons yet, so it may very well fall on the private sector to do the job right.
The end of the evening was a party hosted by the Space Frontier Foundation guys. I don’t drink, but I figured it’d be fun to hang out with the rest of the guys anyway. At the party they announced the newly selected SFF “Advocates”, and was pleasantly surprised to find that my boss Dave had been selected, as was Steve Harrington, and several others. I also found out that Ed Wright’s company suffered a serious blow last week, when their camera chase plane crashed killing all 5 on board. I wanted to say something to Ed, but what can you say in a situation like that? It turns out that had he not made a last minute change in plans, he would’ve been on the plane that went down. That’s a truly awful piece of bad luck, and I hope that Ed can recover.
Anyhow, after that and a brief meeting with the Frontier guys and the rest of our team to go over what our plans were to get this vehicle in the air, we called it a night. Sunday morning we packed out with the help of Armadillo’s crane truck, and we drove the rest of the way back to Mojave that evening, arriving shortly after midnight.
Now that I’m back, we’re in the process of putting together our plans for next year. Things should be rather interesting. John’s team only has to make a few improvements (mostly better landing gear design) in order to have a good chance at Level One, so I hope they focus on that. It’s going to be a real challenge, and the logistics side of things will need a lot of improvement, but it should be a load of fun.