NGLLC 09: The Lunar Landing Pad

This morning, I was emailing with a friend at NASA HQ, who popped me a question about the lunar surface that is required for teams competing for Level Two of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. He asked me (via Facebook--another sign of the times!): "who determines what the 'simulated lunar surface' is like?" I suspect this question may be of interest to a many of you ask well, so I wanted to share my answer.

The lunar surface was designed back in 2006, the first year of this prize competition. It was a joint design, spearheaded by Brooke Owens at the X PRIZE Foundation (now at FAA/AST) and Dr. Sonya Cooper at New Mexico State University. It was a great honor and privilege that we additionally received some input and advice from Apollo astronaut and former US Senator Harrison "Jack" Schmidt, the only geologist to have walked on the surface of the Moon.

The design of the pad required a delicate balance between what is most realistic, what what practical to construct, and what was commensurate with the expected level of difficulty given the prize purse size and expected timeline. We therefore looked at everything from typical crater distribution and shape to overall surface slopes to surface roughness data from a variety of landing sites. We ended up designing a surface like the one pictured below.

We did look at having an overall surface slope of a few degrees (if I recall correctly, the slope tolerance for the Apollo LMs was on the order of 10-15 degrees, so we looked at replicating those statistics), but accomplishing such slopes proved logistically intense (e.g. it required finding a fast and affordable way to construct that pad out in the middle of a working airport). Additionally, it caused concerns about the regulatory burden that such a landing surface might have generated. From a technical standpoint, I suspect many if not all of the of the vehicles designed to claim this prize would indeed be capable of landing on a surface with a modest overall slope--but finding a way to do so where saftey restrictions wouldn't require the vehicle to be leveled prior to a second flight (thereby at least somewhat defeating the purpose) would be quite time consuming.

In subsequent years, we've tried to keep a very similar design to that pad build in 2006, just to preserve fairness. This year, we provided the teams with a blue print for what they needed to build (which can be found on the final page of the rules document, available here).

These pads are fun to work with and fun to look at / photograph. Here are a few highlights:

The pad built for the 2006 and 2008 events at Las Cruces International Airport


The pad built for the 2007 event at Holloman Air Force Base



The pad used by Armadillo in 2009
From 09 NGLLC


And lastly, my personal favorite, my 'Al Shepard moment'

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