The front-runner for a $2 million NASA competition to build mock lunar landers has lost one of its two main vehicles in a fiery crash. The company, Armadillo Aerospace, says it will enter a smaller vehicle instead, but outsiders say the upset will level the playing field and add suspense to the upcoming contest.

The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge is designed to spur innovation in future vehicles that could take off and land vertically on the Moon. The event will be held on 27 and 28 October at the X Prize Cup in Alamogordo, New Mexico, US.

Nine teams have signed up for the competition, but Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas, US, is by far the leading contender for the prize. The company, led by Doom video game creator John Carmack, nearly won the 2006 contest, in which it was the only entrant.

Here’s a picture of the Pixel that I took a few months back. And as I’ve noted before, it’s not a failure if you’ve learned something useful.

ANOTHER UPDATE: More thoughts from Rand Simberg. “I don’t think it’s a disaster for Armadillo. These kinds of things are going to happen along the way, as we start to understand how to develop operable and affordable space transports (a goal that has eluded both the military and NASA, almost half a century after the dawn of the space age). I also find it interesting (and I have to confess, somewhat amusing) that the failure was fundamentally a software failure, given the pedigree of the company that provided the funds that created the vehicle.”