* Prototype NASA landing vehicle goes up in smoke
* Engineers still looking into cause of fiery accident
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Aug 9 A small NASA lander
being tested for missions to the moon and other destinations
beyond Earth crashed and burned after veering off course during
a trial run at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, officials
with the U.S. space agency said.
There were no injuries after the prototype, known as
Morpheus, burst into flames near the runway formerly used by
NASA's space shuttles.
The insect-like vehicle, designed and built by engineers at
NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, had made several flights
attached to a crane before Thursday's attempted free-flight.
Morpheus' engines, which burn liquid oxygen and methane,
appeared to ignite as planned, lifting the 1,750-pound (794 kg)
vehicle into the air. But a few seconds later, Morpheus rolled
over on its side and plummeted to the ground.
NASA video showed the vehicle engulfed in flames and then
rocked by a spectacular explosion, presumably due to the fuel
“"Failures such as these were anticipated prior to the test,
and are part of the development process for any complex
spaceflight hardware," NASA said in a statement.
An investigation is under way, the statement added.
Project Morpheus began in partnership with privately owned
Armadillo Aerospace, which is developing re-usable, suborbital
vehicles that take off and land vertically.
NASA, which has spent about $7 million on the project over
the past 2-1/2 years, is interested in developing technologies
that could be used to fly cargo to the moon and other future
missions beyond Earth orbit.
Project Morpheus was an example of what the former project
manager called "“Home Depot engineering" - low-budget projects
that use existing resources and partner with non-traditional
“"The Morpheus lander is kind of our poster child. It's one
of our first attempts to do these kinds of projects," former
project manager Matt Ondler said in an interview with Reuters
“"Instead of building some elaborate test structure, you go
to Home Depot and build something very quickly that gets you 80
percent of the answer and allows you to keep moving forward," he
Morpheus arrived at Florida's seaside space center in July
for three months of increasingly rigorous test flights,
including automated landings in a mock moonscape, complete with
craters and boulders.
The lander was designed to deliver about 1,100 pounds (500
kg) of cargo to the moon, NASA said on its Project Morpheus
Technologies being developed include a propulsion system
that uses liquid oxygen and methane -- green fuels that could be
manufactured on other planetary bodies, NASA said.
The accident happened as NASA scientists were still hailing
the Mars rover Curiosity's descent and landing on the Red Planet
earlier this week as a "“miracle of engineering."