A few days ago, Brian Turner, captain of the Kansas City Space Pirates, sent out his version of the 2007 Spaceward Games wrap-up. I’d like to emphasize that this is HIS viewpoint, not necessarily mine nor Spaceward’s. But I think he’s pretty accurate and it makes for very interesting reading.
“The good news is that we finished 2nd the bad news is that we did not finish fast enough to win the money. Our best time was 1:15. The first place team managed :54 seconds. They pulled this off in the last minutes of the last hour of the last day.
22 teams entered
8 teams showed
4 teams qualified
2 teams made credible runs for the money.
We qualified on the very first hour of the very first day with a climb that was a factor of 5 stronger than the next nearest competitor. The other three qualifiers squeaked in with weather adjusted climbs in the closing hours of Thursday. Our qualifying climb had a top speed of 3.47 Meters per second (7.75MPH). Things went down hill from there. The weather got bad and kept us from having any good climbs to find the problems that would eventually make the difference between $0 and $500,000.
We were confronted by numerous problems through the week, none of which were critical by themselves, but collectively too much. We did a practice climb on Thursday with cloud cover. Team ETC was kind enough to lend us their spotlight power so we could test our top switch and brake.
Friday was too windy. Saturday was rainy and cloudy all day. The light racer competition was on Saturday. Because we had down time we decided to build a racer at the last minute. In about 45 minutes we built a racer that was able to win the adult class and a $2500 prize. We used spare parts, borrowed parts, scraps and trash.
Sunday was looking good. With the weather predicted to be cloudy and windy in the morning getting somewhat clear and calm right around the peak sun. I decided we should run at that time. The big detail I missed was that the clouds were already gone and the wind was dead calm when I picked our time slot.
The other 2 solar teams had excellent conditions similar to the conditions we had on monday. both of them failed to make even the 1 Meter per second qualifying speed. When our time rolled around the clouds and wind were picking up. The first attempt the climber sucked the safety rope into it’s top roller and came to a stop. We backed down, removed the slack from the safety rope and tried again. On the second attempt the climber stalled out twice on the way up. The ribbon was twisting and bucking more than during any other climb during both this years and last years competition. Through all of this we still managed to put up the best climb seen up to that point.
After hitting the top the wind picked up even more and the bucking was enough to cause our brake to seize up and not let the climber descend. The climber was stuck close to the top and was getting beat to death by the ribbon. Pieces of high dollar solar cells and entire modules were falling off like a mixture of silver confetti and oak leaves. I was at the bottom frantically messing with the throttle and brake controls trying to break it loose. We finally hauled it down with the safety line.
The climber was seriously wounded with over half of it’s solar modules seriously damaged. We had to stop climbing for the day and missed our second slot in the next hour. We had to work like bandits to get the climber put back together for the next day. We had to quit from Midnight to 7:00 AM while the fairground buildings were closed. We managed to get it all back together by 1:00 on Monday only to have missed the nice calm morning conditions and be facing the same conditions at the same time of day as Sunday. As we approached the ribbon with the clock on our time slot already ticking away the ribbon snapped in two and went sailing in the wind. If it had done that while I was attaching the climber it could have taken off a finger. As it was, conditions were getting worse and the broken meant more delays. I had a moment of faith realizing that all of this was well outside the averages of randomness and thinking I should get to church more often.
We used the delay to test the newly reassembled climber in the beautiful sunshine. We found that the motor just shuts off after about 30 seconds for no real reason. It starts back up fine but costs us from 5 to 10 seconds each time it does this. With the ribbon fixed and the procedures changed to keep my fingers out of harms way as we mounted the ribbon.
Then, we…. waited. The clouds would build and dissipate as fast as they moved, making it impossible to predict even a 60 second spot of sunshine. The wind was a little higher than the day before. We could pull off and try again in about an hour. But the sun was decending and there were some high thin clouds moving our way. The bottom safety rope was broken and if we got caught at the top again there would be nothing to save the climber. It was time to bet all in or go home. I glanced at my team mates, made the call and we went for it.
The climb was spectacular by any standard but our own, and at 1:25 with several motor stalls it fell short of the mark needed to win the money.
Well, we have a number of ideas abut the various problems and hope to do the testing needed to find out everything that went wrong. The motor controller was just stopping. The solar panel was only putting out 1/3 of power estimations. Thursday was the last time the brake performed well. I found an adjustment screw had come loose on the brake on Monday. I now suspect that this is what caused the bulk of the problems on Sunday.
The $500,000 was not awarded and will likely roll into next year. That will make the prize money a staggering $900,000.
Of the other competitors only the 2 laser teams appear to have enough power to compete with us. One did not qualify for the same kind of simple problems that plagued us. The microwave teams seemed better this year but still could not get it together and qualify. 3 of 4 solar teams qualified, however there was a clear difference in “bang” between them and us once on the ribbon. So that, in my estimation, leaves only 3 favorites for next year. Us and the 2 laser teams. It has not yet been decided how high and how fast next years competition will be. We will not be able to estimate expenses to go next year until after that. Most of the team members have expressed interest in competing again next year. I personally have to talk that over with my wife. Again we have to stare down the fundraising dragon. The KC Space Pirates as an organization is starting to take on a life of it’s own that I do not have to be the constant center of. So clearly, there will be more competitions in the future.”