The Latest X Prize Challenge Shows the Resurgence of Individual Ingenuity

Paul Breed is an unreasonable man. His video post on YouTube, one of many online artifacts that detail his progress so far, is titled “Why Neighbors Think I’m Crazy.” For the camera, Breed demonstrates the injector flow rate for his lunar lander, which he is building in his garage.

With the help of his 21-year-old son (also named Paul Breed), Breed has been laboring on the spacecraft for a little over a year. The undertaking may seem less insane when it is explained that the vehicle’s ultimate destination is not the moon, but the New Mexico desert, where like-minded rocket fanatics come to compete for the next million-dollar X Prize. The Lunar Lander Challenge, sponsored by the X Prize Foundation, NASA, and Northrop Grumman, dares individual inventors to build what took massive governmental resources 40 years ago - a payload-carrying rocket vehicle that can take off, hover, and land multiple times. With the new technological tools now available, building a rocket ship in one’s garage is not so much a flight of fantasy anymore. Thanks to 3D CAD, in-house CNC capabilities, and a borderline-irrational degree of determination, the father-and-son duo known as Unreasonable Rocket have invented a working lander in only a years’ worth of part-time effort. The Breeds have performed virtually all of the work in their home shop, keeping stride with eight-man teams who have been in the contest twice as long. “It’s still a problem that is insanely hard,” admits Breed. “It is in many ways an engineering tour d’force. You’ve got electronics and plumbing to think about, as well as structural, chemical, aerodynamics, and safety problems to consider.” Rocketry still remains an inexact and experimental science. The basic techniques have not changed much since the 1950s. But inventing - the method of design and prototyping – has changed dramatically just in the last few years. Recent commercial developments may usher in a new era where creative and highly motivated people can achieve technical breakthroughs of which governments - and corporations - can only dream. The mission of the X Prize Foundation aims to stimulate the private sector and the powerful force of personal ingenuity to solve big problems. Worldwide press surrounded the first X Prize award, the Ansari Challenge, where Brian Binnie flew a reusable craft to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere and back. Putting up a purse for a crazy stunt for the benefit humankind is not a new trick. The X Prize contests (now expanded beyond the space arenas to the fields of genomics and automobiles) took inspiration from the old Orteig Prize, which offered $25,000 to anyone who could manage a solo cross-Atlantic flight, a task achieved by an unknown pilot named Charles Lindbergh in 1938. Innovations made by one unreasonable man spawned a new aviation industry and reinvented the notion of travel. The Lunar Lander Challenge is the second space-related technical feat. A vehicle must lift its payload and land on a pad 100 meters away, while hovering for a total of either 90 seconds (for the smaller award), or 180 seconds (to win the grand prize). Moreover, landers must make the same trip back within a couple of hours. The desert competition is held annually each October until all the $2 million prize money has been claimed. All of the eight other landers exhibited at the 2007 event utilize a single rocket engine, typically surrounded by actuators and thrusters to steer and stabilize the craft. Unreasonable Rocket’s scheme is unique in that it uses a series of smaller rocket motors which do double-duty in terms of propulsion and maneuvering. The modular scheme also allows the team to build two ships to compete in both the 90-second and 180-second events. “If you look at our design, the vehicle is quadrantly symmetrical. My thinking was, if you can build one quadrant and get it working, you just duplicate it three times and then you’re done,” Breed explains. “That way you don’t have to redesign values and actuators and thrusters.” This shortcut to development looked simple on the drawing board, but in practice, the four-motor design has proved troublesome. “We got a 128-second duration run the first time, which for a rocket motor is incredible,” says Breed. “For our quadrant design, we built four more of them, but they wouldn’t run at all. We had no idea what was wrong, since we made them as identical to ten decimal places.” Chemical processes inside the motor can be so temperamental that even changing the solder from copper to silver – as the Breeds eventually discovered – causes an ignition failure. Even in the most reliable rockets, successful launch seems dependent to some extent on luck, which is why Breed considers rocket science to be less of a science and more of a black art. The quadrant design must get lucky four times. In addition, the smaller engines burn hotter, requiring Breed to devise a more advanced cooling system. “Those are the sort of things you learn the hard way, which weren’t obvious in the beginning,” says Breed. He accepts the unforeseen setbacks with good humor, as par for the course in rocket science. “NASA’s first attempt success rate in their approach to Mars was down in the 50-percent range, and they spent billions of dollars doing analysis.“If I had to start all over again, I probably would go with a single engine, knowing what I know now,” he jokes, “but I’m already six-months pregnant.” Due to the experimental nature of rocket-making, development of a lunar lander is exhaustively iterative. Breed started with a rough CAD model of his design, leaving the details to be determined in the course of trial-and-error. “As far as software and design, it’s probably a lot of old school tactics – take a piece of metal, hold it up to where you want to go, measure it with calipers, and sketch it out,” says Breed, who does most of his CAD work in the 3D surface modeler Rhinoceros, an inexpensive program used by industrial designers to build highly accurate curved components. Rhinoceros models convert easily to CAM software, which creates robotic instructions for automated cutters. “I’ll sketch out a part in Rhinoceros, export it and cut it out through SheetCAM and bolt it on. And then go on to the next piece.” One advantage the team has had that explains its remarkable progress after only one year is the addition of CNC equipment into the home shop. The milling machine that sits in the Breeds’ garage is perhaps the biggest commercial breakthrough in recent years to empower inventors. While CNC machines, which cut accurate metal components through basic computer instructions based on CAD designs, have been around 40 years, the Breeds’ Tormach PCNC 1100 finally brings this technology down to a personal level. The Tormach machine has all the cutting capability to make most mechanical parts. It can make cuts in heavy steel plate, or carve out curves through harder materials like titanium. A few years ago, such capabilities could be found only in a factory environment. A powerful CNC machine used to demand both advanced machinist and programming skills, required 3 phase power, and came with price tags starting at $50,000. The Tormach PCNC 1100 was especially engineered as a prototyping mill that could run in a garage and is simple enough for a novice to operate. Each machine includes both CAD and CAM software. The combination of CAD, CAM, and a milling machine delivers the fabrication capabilities within an individual’s budget at a modest $6800. “One of the other competitors in the contest, Team gs and then sent out all the parts to have them made in fabrication shops. They’ve been working on their vehicle for two years now and they aren’t any farther ahead with a group of eight than we are with the two of us in our garage after a year,” explains Breed. “I think the fundamental reason is that we can make parts. We don’t have a two-week turnaround from drawing to building a part. When we have a new idea, we can test it out that afternoon. Being able to make the components in-house allows us to do many more iterations much more quickly. In rocketry, you have to rely less on analysis, and more on testing.” The modern technological age we live in can be traced to a few luminaries like Edison, Ford, and Lindburgh. For decades since, individual innovation has faded as corporations took the helm. The next chapter of history may rest once again on breakthroughs from the minds of unreasonably driven individuals. “The availability of low-cost machine tools, and CAD tools that a normal mortal can both use and afford, computing power, and online communities: all of these developments empowers the individual American inventor in a way that changes how things are made. I don’t think it’s so much the X Prize is spurring this empowerment, it’s more a change that’s happening in the world.” Breed cites his day job as an example of the inventor’s resurgence. When he began his career designing circuitry, a new product required three weeks and a whole staff of engineers, drafters, part material procurers. Today, Breed can do all of it in 8 hours on his computer, and even order the materials online. Now with automated machining tools, engineers now do not even need the support staff of fabricators to make a prototype.“Creative people used to need help. In a traditional engineering organization, you have just a few creative designers, then you have a bunch of worker bees around them. In time, the worker bee jobs are going away, but it makes the creative types infinitely more valuable and powerful, because now they can create on their own,” says Breed. “They are much less likely to be working for GE or GM than working as independent consultants who can participate with eight or ten companies and use their skill set a lot more extensively.” As for the X Prize challenge, no awards have yet been claimed after the second meeting of competitors, only one of which, a former Ansari team, has been able to get off the ground. Unreasonable Rocket will continue to test its design for a flight at the 2008 event. Prize or no prize, the Breeds have committed themselves fully to the endeavor. “My goal for the entire project is not just to do the task, but to show that a couple motivated people in their garage can accomplish big things,” says Breed. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him; the unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. “All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Competitor rockets from Team Armadillo (photos courtesy of Armadillo Aerospace) About the Northrup Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge The latest X Prize contest, The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge is designed to accelerate commercial technological developments supporting the birth of a new generation of Lunar Landers capable of ferrying payloads or humans back and forth between lunar orbit and the lunar surface. Such a vehicle would have direct application to NASA’s space exploration goals as well as the personal spaceflight industry. Additionally, the challenge will help industry develop the operational capacity to launch quick turnaround vertical take-off, vertical landing vehicles, which will be of significant use to many facets of the commercial launch procurement market. For more information about the challenge, please visit: To view Paul Breed’s blog on the development of his lander, please see: