Starchaser’s rocket engine just blew up. We heard a big “pop” out here, and then instead of the nice 20-foot plume we’d been promised, we got a huge fireball, and a rolling cloud of black smoke. Starchaser CEO Steve Bennett, then on the stage narrating said, when asked what we’d just seen: Well, we thought we give the X Prize Cup a grand finish by blowing up our engine.

So ends the first annual X Prize Cup. Hoo boy.

Searfoss just made another run. Getting details now on what went wrong with Armadillo. Carmack talking now on the stage. Says everything went smoothly; the rocket’s control system kept the thins steady even in winds that have forced the scrubbing of Tripoli’s planned model rocket flights. But the Armadillo rocket set down just slightly off center from where it lifted off on a piece of steel plate that served as launch pad. One leg came down on the pad, the other three set down in the mud that had formed from all the rain last night. The craft tipped over, and, as it turned out, cracked a high pressure blabididy blah something.

I tell ya, my head is getting baked out here. Not used to this blazing desert sun. Mouth parched. The crowd has really thinned out now. Dust blowing across my laptop from the desert. Food all eaten here in the tent, largely, it seems, by people without press badges. “Batches? We don’t need no steenkin batches.”

Someone prominent in the field who shall remain nameless suggested to me before I came here that this event looked like it was going to be more hype than substance. I’m not sure that this point that he was wrong. Lots of mockups here, very few actual vehicles. And of all the stuff here, only one is actually capable of reaching space, an unmanned rocket by Up Aerospace.

The Up Aerospace guys are standing by themselves next to their rocket. “We should have built something wider,” Up Aerospace pres. Jerry Larson told me, as he stood by himself next to his rather slim rocket. “That way I’d have more shade.”

Thing is, when you get close to their rocket, you can see that that it’s made to fly, not just look cool. The aluminum body is finely machined, smooth, solid to the touch, without rivets or obvious welds. I commented on that to Larson. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s because it’s real.”

2:22 p.m.
Armadillo just launched the first of their rocket flights. Turns out we had a pretty sucky view here at the media tent–Starchaser’s trailer is in the way. We saw it take off to about 20 feet, translate sideways, and then descend behind the trailer again. What we didn’t see was that it tipped over when it landed, fell on its side. I caught a glimpse of it on the video feed we have here, but they didn’t give us a reply. I’m going to hit the media stand over by the jumbotron for the next flight, which still going ahead as planned. On the feed I can see that the craft is right side up, ready to go again. Heading over to jumbotron…back in a mo….

1:35 p.m.

1:15 p.m.

Searfoss just made his first EZ Rocket flight. There’ll be one more before the day is out. Far as I can see, it went off without a hitch. Just beautiful. Definitely a crowd pleaser. Pretty windy here, but apparently that wasn’t a problem.

Greetings from the media tent at the first annual X Prize Cup in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I’ve got a good view of the runway where XCOR’s EZ Rocket will take off later, and also a direct shot of the stand where John Carmack’s Armadillo Aerospace and Steve Bennett’s Starchaser will fire their rockets. They’re about a half mile from here to comply with FAA regs, but I’ll see what I can do with my telephoto.

It rained hard through the night and some of us were seriously worried that the event would be washed out. Happy to report that’s not the case, though are a lot of low-lying clouds. Rick Searfoss, who will be flying the EZ Rocket, told me low clouds could be cause to scrub his flight. I’ll keep you posted on that.

Everyone’s in a great mood here. A cop at the gate told me 10,000 tickets have been sold. The souvenir tent was mobbed immediately when the gates opened. I grabbed a couple of X Prize Cup lapel pins and an Ansari X Prize program from last year–pretty sure this stuff’s going to sell out.

Just before the gates opened Brant Sponberg of NASA’s Centennial Challenges and Innovative Procurements announced a new partnership with the X Prize Foundation. NASA is planning two new centennial Challenges. These are NASA-awarded prizes inspired by the X Prize. Details are to be forthcoming, but Sponberg told us the basics:

One prize is tentatively called the Suborbital Payload Challenge. It will be a cash prize for a reusable rocket capable of lofting a payload into suborbital space. Sponberg didn’t say how high NASA wants it to go, but he said it will be higher than the 100 km altitude of X Prize class vehicles.

The second one will be called the Suborbital Lunar Analog Challenge, for a vertical-take-off-and-landing rocketship that can fly to a to-be-announced velocity. The idea is to develop technologies that would be useful for NASA’s planned manned lunar lander. Seems to me Armadillo Aerospace is a shoo-in for that one. Don’t know if Carmack and crew have heard about it yet…. I’ll pop over to their tent after I post this to find out what they think of it.

All previous centennial Challenges have had cash prizes below $250,000. Sponberg says these two new ones will be for larger amounts, but again he didn’t say just how much larger.