Armadillo Aerospace Sets Its Sights on the Lunar Lander Challenge Prize
Pixel took flight multiple times during the Wirefly X Prize Cup held October 20 & 21, with the Armadillo Aerospace craft nearly winning major NASA prize money in a Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Image
Credit: Armadillo Aerospace

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, New Mexico ? Weather and rocketry are in synch for the Armadillo Aerospace team to launch quick turnaround vertical takeoff and landing vehicles in the quest to win Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge money.

Here at opening day of the X Prize Cup, the Armadillo?s lead rocketeer, John Carmack, is taking a fingers-crossed stance, in anticipation that all his team?s work is going to pay off.

The challenge was designed by NASA to speed up the commercial development of a vehicle capable of ferrying cargo or humans back and forth between the surface of the Moon and low lunar orbit.

The complete Lunar Lander Challenge purse of $2,500,000 -- NASA's contribution is $2 million -- is divided into two levels. Level One is worth a total of $500,000. The more difficult Level Two is valued at a sum of $2,000,000.

Once again, Carmack and his team are the lone competitors in the challenge. Last year, despite three attempts, Armadillo Aerospace's Pixel failed to win the prize at the X Prize Cup.

?I do classify myself much more as an engineer than an entrepreneur,? Carmack told an audience October 26 at an X Prize Foundation Executive Summit. He also chided some of his next-of-kin rocket builders that all that?s needed is a good business plan.

?There are plenty of technology problems that must be faced, he explained.
?Technical problems only submit when they?ve been beaten to submission. And a lot of them are biting back,? he noted.

Low-grade millionaire

Carmack said he?s spent about $3.5 million dollars out of his own pocket so far. ?I?m a low-grade millionaire?I have enough money to continue putting this half-million dollars a year into our project as necessary.?

After some seven years of development, ?we?ve made great progress,? Carmack added. ?I just don?t see what?s going to stop us.?

As a key pet peeve, Carmack said that some are taking the scapegoat approach, blaming ?the big bad government? for impeding progress. He felt that this is not accurate, with Armadillo spending about 25 percent of their efforts dealing with regulations, permits, insurance, etc., with little impact on their eight-person team.

Test a little and fly a lot is alive and well at Armadillo Aerospace, Carmack explained.

?Nobody has a good reusable spaceship now?and I would contend that right now nobody really knows exactly how to do that,? Carmack told the audience.

??I know Armadillo is sort of a hard company for some people to get their heads around. Where on one hand it looks like sort of a garage/hobby operation. But on the other hand, we?re the ones that are out there doing this,? Carmack said. ?We don?t have more flight tests than anyone?we have more flight tests than everyone. And it?s going to continue that way,? he said.

Unknown unknowns

The Armadillo approach is modularity of flight hardware. Projecting out on his engineering trajectory, Carmack said he and his team are looking at building a commercially viable reusable vehicle, one that rockets people and cargo up to 62 miles (100 kilometers) at the edge of space, then returns to Earth for a soft landing.

Atop the rocket structure, a six-foot acrylic sphere serves as a cabin, sort of a fishbowl flying up into space, Carmack related. ?That?s more compelling than being strapped into a little seat and looking out a small porthole.?

Carmack said he expects to have that craft in operational status within a five year period, with the starting gun, if all goes well, from next year. It?s a new way of doing research,? he said.

But as a public-carrying vehicle, Carmack envisions $10,000 to $20,000 tickets to ride the craft, labeling it the world?s biggest roller coaster. ?In the end, it?s going to become an attraction.?

Another cautionary warning Carmack tossed out to fellow commercial space community members is overuse of simulations, rather than building and testing things incrementally.

?The unknown unknowns are always going to catch you,? Carmack said, no need to study things to death via expensive simulations. Rather, do testing in reality, ?and we?re heavily biased towards that,? he said.

Work is progressing and the obstacles are falling, Carmack said, with Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas sensing it has a credible plan all the way to orbit.

?In the end, while space is not easy, it is hard ? but it?s not complicated,? Carmack concluded.