Armadillo Aerospace’s Hovercraft could charitably be described as a cistern with four aluminum-tube legs. The latest contraption follows previous Armadillo designs like “The Crayon,” a rocket shaped like its namesake, and another rocket Armadillo entered into the X Prize Cup competition last year, whose conical shape looked like a nub of a pencil with an engine attached.
Armadillo’s designs may lack the technological glamour of a NASA space shuttle, but Armadillo is not a typical aerospace company. If the team’s efforts look more Wile E. Coyote than Star Wars, it’s because the company’s leader, John Carmack, believes in simplicity. The more practical, the better. He recently traded in his modified Ferrari F50, a turbocharged monstrosity, for a more prosaic BMW SUV in a concession to the reality of raising a family. Carmack’s bare-bones philosophy extends to rocket building. He believes a simple design—one that is refined and tested constantly—will be just the thing to put private customers into orbit sooner than you might think.
The name John Carmack may not ring a bell to most people, but ask anyone with more than a passing interest in computer games and you will soon find out why the man is a rock star to gamers. As the lead programmer at id Software, creator of titles like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, and their various sequels, Carmack revolutionized gaming. Such adrenaline-pumping computer games planted players in the middle of frighteningly realistic, three-dimensional environments, arming them with various weaponry to mow down hordes of Nazis, cacodemons, and aliens. id—and Carmack in particular—has earned an unmatched reputation for technological advances in gaming and handsome profits in the process. In short, Carmack disrupted the video gaming world and now he and his new company, Armadillo Aerospace, have set their sites on outer space.
Computer science entrepreneurs have been the lead contestants in the space race of the 21st century. Fueled by technological ambition and vast reserves of cash, Microsoft’s Paul Allen and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos give financial backing to teams vying for prizes in recent space competitions. In Carmack’s case, he supervises his team, too. If Doom put players in a demon-infested base on Mars, it was only round one for Carmack. Armadillo’s ambition is to put people and payload in space with a rocket. The goal might be loftier, but Carmack’s betting his programming expertise in fast, constant development can translate to a victory in the space race.
outer space seems especially far away from Armadillo Aerospace’s home, a nondescript warehouse in an industrial area on the northeast edge of Dallas. Inside, the office space is practically hollow, save for some framed newspaper and magazine clippings on the wall and a Russian spacesuit on the floor. All signs of life come from the shop at the back, a massive garage filled with rocket detritus: a crumpled nosecone here, a broken engine there, and drums of propellant. Square in the middle is the team’s latest design, the cistern-looking lunar lander to be entered in a space contest in October. It is engineered to propel itself up 150 feet from a launch pad, float for 180 seconds, and land on a simulated lunar surface 300 feet away. The team tested the lunar lander recently, with four massive chains linked to 4,000-pound concrete blocks serving as tethers. A video of the test (Armadillo shares the results of all its tests on the team’s Web site) shows the lander hovering beautifully in the Texas night.
Carmack didn’t always spend his free time burning fuel at an extremely high rate on barren concrete—aside from his penchant for fast, exotic cars, that is. His journey to space began only a few years ago. Carmack’s workday is and always has been spent programming computer code. In the late ’90s, he found himself increasingly drawn to Web sites of space exploration groups. One organization in particular, the Space Frontier Foundation, caught his attention—it was a meeting place for space enthusiasts who wanted to personally push the boundaries of space exploration. A contest sponsored by the foundation challenged enthusiasts to launch a small rocket 200 kilometers in the sky, a tempting target for Carmack.
By his own admission, Carmack didn’t have the skills he needed to build a rocket himself, but he did have the checkbook to financially back two participating teams. They lost; Carmack’s only consolation prize was a case of rocket fever. “I went through this larval phase where I went from being a computer scientist guy to being a rocket scientist guy,” he says. “I started reading all the classic books and literature and started figuring out what my opinions were on the right way to develop rockets.”
In 2000, Carmack approached a group of hobby rocket enthusiasts in Dallas and recruited several members to join him at Armadillo Aerospace. One of these men was Neil Milburn, an affable Englishman who teaches AP physics at Plano East Senior High School. Milburn brought not only physics skills to the team but also business acumen drawn from his time as a turnaround consultant. Milburn calls Carmack “an innovator.”
“Most programmers are rigid thinkers,” Milburn says. “But John is always thinking of new things. His development philosophy works great for us. We’ve gotten very far on chump change when the price tag on space flight is out of control.”
“One of the biggest lessons I learned was that I didn’t want to have a design where I work on building the rocket for a year, go out in the desert, press a button, and watch the thing blow up,” Carmack explains. “What I was going to try to do was make the aerospace development closer to computer science and electronics—rapid development cycles with a lot of experimentation and testing. Imagine where the computer industry would be if programmers only got to test their programs once a year. That’s what a lot of aerospace development is like. It’s not efficient or competitive.”
And the fruits—some might say “aftermath”—of this design mantra of “build, test, fix if it breaks, learn the lesson, and test again” are evident at the team’s shop, where spent parts and rocket carcasses litter the shop floor.