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Another year, another X-Prize Cup (see the whole set on Flickr).

When first we left for the competition, I was really looking forward to it this year, expecting it to be bigger and better than last year’s, which already featured cool speakers, several rocket launches and static firings, and multiple (in the end, futile) attempts by Armadillo Aerospace at the Lunar Lander Challenge. Unfortunately, this year had no speakers, 2 rocket launches, and multiple (in the end, futile) attempts by Armadillo Aerospace at the Lunar Lander Challenge. It was really disappointing, as I had greatly enjoyed 2006’s, and it was enough to make me reconsider going again in 2008.

Here’s some things that would make next year’s X-Prize Cup (XPC) worth going to. I’m sure some of these are the result of having it at Holloman Air Force Base instead of at Las Cruces, and others are the result of sharing time with an airshow, but all of them are things that I’d hope would be better next year.

  1. Entrance procedures: It’s apparently somewhat of a X-Prize tradition to not have proper signage up by the time the gates are supposed to open, and it was carried on this year as well — which led to everybody entering the base via the main gate, stopping at the visitor’s center, finding out we were supposed to go to an alternate entrance (marked ‘Military contractors only’), and driving through several miles of Holloman AFB while only being able to guess that we were heading in the right direction due to a distinct lack of guidance in the base. After about 20 minutes of driving, we were directed to an airstrip where we parked and went through a security check. The security check was pretty similar to what you’d find in an airport checkpoint (although thankfully we could leave our shoes on) but some of the rules were a bit nonsensical… for example, backpacks were explicitly disallowed (which lead to lots of awkward carrying of handouts and freebies until you hit the booth giving out bags) but camera bags, including my backpack camera bag, were explicitly allowed. After the checkpoint, we got on the bus and were driven to the area where the expo was going on. Except we didn’t make it. About halfway there, the bus stopped and sat for roughly an hourXPC 2007, Hour 1.…baking anyone unfortunate to have sat on the left (eastern) side. No effort was made by the driver to tell us why we were waiting or how long we could expect it to last, although we later found out that Armadillo Aerospace had made their first attempt at the LLC and not even gotten off the pad due to ignition problems. This for some reason caused the base to order an hourlong halt to all traffic. It was a terrible way to start the first day of the XPC. The end of the day wasn’t any better, as the bus pickup location was nowhere near where our bus dropped us off, and nowhere was the correct pickup location posted. We basically started wandering out of the expo area and asking airmen where we should go until a group pointed us in the right direction. On day 2, the signage was marginally better (although still quite confusing), but at least the bus didn’t stop prematurely and we were informed where the pickup location was when we were dropped off.
  2. Launch locations: Not only were the launch locations farther away than last year (compare my pictures from the two events if you’re interested, and I had a better zoom lens this year), but the LLC location was hidden behind a huge berm that pretty much hid Armadillo’s vehicle from view until it was 10m or so off the ground. Given that the most interesting LLC-related events this year all occurred either on the ground or when it was hovering a few meters over the pad, I really wondered why I was there in person to see Armadillo compete, since I was watching it on TV (the Jumbotron) anyway. On day 2, we once again were in the bus while the LLC attempt was going on, but this time we found out that not only was the view better from the bus, it would have been great if we had just stayed in the parking lot. The rockets were equally distant, so far away that you could barely hear the engine (and these are some loud engines).
  3. Shade: Even though the weather was fairly mild temperature-wise, the sun was pretty intense. One of the great things about last year is that they had several pavilion areas with chairs where you could sit down in the shade. This year, neither shade nor seating were anywhere to be found. Instead, you had a bunch of people hugging the buildings for shade, and a very brisk business at the ‘Chair-in-a-bag’ booth.
  4. More rocketry: Last year, there were not only multiple static engine firings, but also multiple rocket launches. Imagine that! Supposedly, one of the problems with XPC 2006 was that because it was in an airport it was hard to get clearance to launch rockets, especially larger ones that might drift away while under parachute, and this kept even more rockets from being launched. I had assumed that this year because it was at Holloman (which is both huge and under the control of the Air Force) that there would be an increase in the number of launches… but instead, we get only 2 launches over the whole weekend? It was a pretty pathetic turnout even when not compared to XPC 2006.
  5. Speakers: One of the best things about XPC 2006 was the speakers, it was a great lineup and included several former astronauts. This year there were no speakers at all. Definitely something to bring back for XPC 2007.
  6. Professional reporting: In 2006, I seem to recall that the reporting and play-by-play were done by a team from Space.com. Regardless, they were professional, good at interviewing, and really enhanced the experience — even the one girl who perhaps didn’t have her terminology straight but was usually promptly and gently corrected. They not only reported on what we were seeing, they actually had great interviews with the people involved and cameras in great locations. This year, they only had one camera, and it was located right where we were on the flight line, but at least it could see over the berm due to being mounted on a truck. I really missed the footage last year which included shots from closer to the pad and from inside the van, where you could see Carmack as he was controlling the vehicle. Also, the first day’s radio host was awful. He didn’t seem to have any experience with live events, and just kept repeating things over and over again, such as “Remember, everybody, point at the rocket when you see it — it’s the safe way to enjoy a rocket launch.” He must have said that at least 20 times. For the record, I took my life into my hands, and didn’t point. We lived, though. It didn’t help that his voice reminded me of David Dean Bottrell’s (most known for playing the creepy and annoying frying-pan serial killer on Boston Legal). The host on the second day was much better, although the show seemed excessively scripted and sometimes didn’t deal well with the inherent delays.
  7. Multiple LLC competitors: A really meager complaint, as it’s both the least under the control of the XPC and, as we all said last year, Of Course, Armadillo’s Going to Win Easily Next Year™. But I would be remiss if I didn’t include it, and having multiple competitors would really increase the excitement of the LLC.
  8. Better food and drink: Out of all the food we tried this year (three guys eating 1-2 meals per day, every time eating something different), the description of the absolute best food item we had among all of our meals (the bratwursts at the ‘Texas BBQ’ booth) was “bland, but ok with enough mustard and relish.” Not only was the food wavering between uninteresting and bad, there was barely any selection, quite a difference from the wide array of booths at XPC 2006, some with extremely tasty food (I’m lookin’ at you, cheesesteak). I’d say the best thing out there was the smoothie stall just north of the AWACS plane, and that’s hard to make a meal out of. The beer selection was another failure, in my opinion. Last year, there was a nice tent set up by a local microbrewery, basically a portable beergarden, and they had a selection of quite good beers to choose from. This year, we had our choice of Miller Lite or Bud Lite… or if you searched for it, you could settle for AmberBock at the one beer booth that had it. As most rocket enthusiasts know, there’s a lot of delays inherent in the launching process, and last year a great way to pass that time was by hanging out in the beergarden, drinking and chatting with other like-minded people. After almost giving up on finding a similar place this year, I thought I’d finally struck paydirt when we came across a huge tent in the back of the show with Paulaner signs on the wall and plenty of seating. Try to order, though, and you’d find out as we did that the quality beer was for airshow workers only. It was frustrating, to say the least, especially given that there was no signage up to tell us that the tent was for workers only.
  9. Better communication: When I say this, I’m mainly thinking of the web site and its mostly complete failure to provide useful information, such as a schedule of events, guidelines on what you could/couldn’t carry into the base, and what we could expect when we got there. It seemed to me that the ‘Attend’ page didn’t get put up until quite late in the process, and it wasn’t immediately obvious that unlike past year’s XPC, that admission was free and I didn’t need to worry about getting tickets. I spent quite a while going over the XPC site (which seemed to be spread out over several actual websites) before we left for the event, and I still had no idea that it would be sharing space and time with an airshow.
  10. More space exhibits: The airshow obviously seemed like top dog here, with far fewer booths than last year pertinent to space exploration and much more given over to military hardware and organizations.
  11. Scheduling: I never once saw an agenda or even an outline of a schedule for the entire show. What little information we did have about scheduling was given to us by the announcers, and sometimes if you didn’t hear it the one time it was mentioned, you were out of luck. I’ve helped run conventions before, and so I’m sensitive to the fact that things can change pretty quickly, but that’s no excuse to not even try. At a minimum, providing information that in retrospect seems obvious, such as “The airshow is taking over from 10AM to 2PM” would have really helped us decide where we wanted to be and when, rather than just sitting on the runway waiting for airshow events to finish. Also, having a dynamic display up that listed the times (even if they were just estimates) of the next LLC attempt or rocket launch would let me know if I should be walking through the exhibit hall or waiting with bated breath on the flight line. I was also disappointed in the scheduling of some of the events — the most exciting event, Armadillo’s run at the LLC, apparently started shortly after doors opened on the first day. We entered the air force base at about 8:15 (not expecting getting in to take over an hour), and we were pretty early judging by the number of cars. It was disappointing to hear that even though we were among the earliest to arrive, that Armadillo had already taken a shot at the LLC… and it would have been even more disappointing if we had missed a successful attempt. The XPC should really try to avoid scheduling their most interesting events at a time when most people haven’t even arrived, especially when that’s also even before the scheduled hours of the XPC, which according to the website was 10 am to 5pm.
  12. Audiovisual tech: Last year, they had two Jumbotrons, and they were pretty well placed along the flight line. This year, there was only one, and it was placed at the south end of the flightline… but both rocket launches happened north of the flight line, which meant that you could pretty much watch the jumbotron or the actual launch, but not both. Also, the placement at the extreme south end meant that if you wanted to be able to see the jumbotron (remember, it’s the only way to see the interesting parts of the LLC challenge), you were pretty much stuck waiting down at the south end of the flight line. Having two jumbotrons or at least placing the sole jumbotron in a more central location would have helped alleviate this. Also, the sound left a lot to be desired. While it was pretty easy to hear if you were on the south end of the flightline, heading too far north or really more than 50 meters into the expo meant you didn’t hear much at all. It would be really nice to have some additional speakers or repeaters for the audio, especially in places where people were likely to congregate like the exhibit hall.

All in all, it was fairly disappointing, and I know the XPC can do better next year (especially since they HAVE done better in the past). If they can even change half of these things, then I’ll be excited again about going back — and I definitely hope XPC 2008 will be a blast!

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Having been generally interested in space exploration for many years, when a friend of mine suggested a road trip to go to the X-Prize Cup, how could I turn it down? Six of us went and had a blast at the competition itself talking to the various groups and watching the competitions going on, including Armadillo‘s heartbreaking third try at the Lunar Lander Challenge.  Even after the failures, though, the guys with Armadillo were very approachable and willing to chat about what worked, what didn’t, and how they had gotten this far.  While I think next year they’ll definitely nail at least the first level challenge and quite possibly the second, they’ll more than likely have some serious competition (they were the only ones trying this year).

One of the things that I found really interesting about Armadillo’s approach is how they’ve adapted several of the principles of Agile software development to building a rocket vehicle — their development process is characterized by multiple short iterations, heavily emphasizes testing, and focuses on a process where in each iteration you attempt to get some piece of incremental functionality working before moving on to the next. In a software project, these would be unit and integration tests and would result in working applications… here, it’s static engine firings and tethered test flights, and it’s more than likely to result in the first winner of the Lunar Lander challenge.
So why hasn’t this been done before, and how did they accomplish in months and hundreds of thousands what took NASA years and millions?
I think it’s entirely due to the cost of change.  A critical way in which software development differs from most traditional forms of engineering is the cost of revising your design.  No structural engineer would consider completely revising what the framework of a building looks like when it was halfway done, but this is something that often happens (for better or worse)  in software projects.  The whole concept of agility and refactoring is enabled by the fact that the cost of implementing a change can be as low as recompiling and re-running the test suite — and agile methodologies take advantage of that to “embrace change”, and believe that by slowly developing the design as you build, instead of attempting to get everything right up-front (before you’ve even started developing), that you can take advantage of lessons learned along the way.

The problem in adapting agile methodologies to traditional engineering is that in most cases you can’t afford to take your half-built building, tear it down, and rebuild it in a new manner. It’s just too expensive, both in terms of materials and in time.  With smaller projects, however, ones that are cheaper and take less time, you can afford to do this — as any shade-tree mechanic or Sunday carpenter knows, sometimes you get halfway into a project and realize there’s a better way.  When NASA built Gemini and Apollo, everything was hugely expensive.  Many if not most parts were being custom-developed and some of the materials were either completely new
or being used in completely new ways (although not Velco, that’d been invented shortly after WW2). The cost of changing the design was huge.  Team Armadillo, on the other hand, can take advantage of the huge advances in miniaturization and cost that have been made in the past 40 years. Many of their items are either low-cost and home-built, or are simple off-the-shelf parts (like the ‘brain’ of the system, a commercially-available PC104 board running Linux). The fact that they can quickly and cheaply replace parts when they break, or can even redesign (to a certain degree) entire systems means that their cost of change is low.

With a low cost of change, agile practices become practical, and I believe that being able to take advantage of that tight feedback loop — Try, Test, Fix — had a lot to do with Armadillo’s success so far. And, after all, I want them and others to succeed — they’re getting me closer to my vacation on the moon!

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X-Prize Pics

For those interested, I took my camera along on the trip and got some pretty great pictures. Here are the flickr sets:

X-Prize Cup 2006

X-Prize Cup 2006

As you can see, it was a beautiful day. We also went to the nearby missile museum:

White Sands National Missile Range Museum

And finished it off with a quick trip over to the White Sands National Monument and the Cloudcroft area.

White Sands National Monument & Cloudcroft

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