Armadillo Aerospace Reports Progess on Modular Rocket Design

Success is being reported by Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas in the group's modular rocket work.

The company has completed a set of tethered flights of the first modular rocket segment, flights that went much quicker than expected, John Carmack, chief rocketeer of the private group told

Armadillo Aerospace is led and bankrolled by Carmack, a 36-year-old pioneering programmer in the computer gaming industry. The small research and development team is designing, building, and flight testing computer-controlled rocket vehicles, with an eye towards piloted suborbital vehicle development in the coming years.

Over the past six years, Carmack as a rocket entrepreneur has spent slightly more than $3 million sponsoring the work through earnings gleaned from his computer gaming business.

Tethered test hops

"We went all the way to a ground liftoff and landing on our very first day of testing it. We are currently building up four additional modules, and we intend to fly one module, two module, and four module configurations, and probably also demonstrate two single module vehicles flying at the same time," Carmack said.

In a recently updated news archive of project test results, Carmack detailed the suite of tethered test hops of the company's modularized rocket.

"I noticed I had one of my three year old son's toy robots in the back of my SUV, so I decided to tie-wrap it on for the rocket's maiden voyage," Carmack said. He and his rocket specialists were able to do four short flights with a single propellant load.

Those test hops each provided important data for the Armadillo Aerospace team.

On the third flight of the craft, "stability was great, and I drove the vehicle around under the tether a bit," Carmack reported. "We did a ground liftoff and landing for the fourth flight. Everything went fine."

"Now that we have proven that the module works as designed, we are going to build up the remaining four modules that we have parts on hand for," Carmack said. All the plumbing, wiring, and testing will take more time, but he added that it's likely a four module system will be done in time for display at this October's Wirefly X Prize Cup festivities.

A tethered test of that equipment might be possible, "but winning the Lunar Lander Challenge is the main priority," Carmack added.

Lunar Lander Challenge

The Wirefly X Prize Cup — to be held October 26-28 at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico — will include the Northrop Lunar Lander Challenge. That event is sponsored by NASA's Centennial Challenges Program and is designed to accelerate commercial development of technology that can ferry cargo and humans between the Moon's surface and lunar orbit.

At last year's Wirefly X Prize expo, Armadillo Aerospace showcased their Pixel vehicle. That vertical-takeoff and vertical-landing rocket ran well, propelling itself up into the sky, hovering, and then transitioned to a touchdown on a landing pad. However, Pixel ran into problems attempting to repeat its flight successfully and failed to earn a slice of the competition money.

Pixel has since made a full, back-to-back, double free-flight of more than 90 seconds, according to the Lunar Lander Challenge rules, Carmack told "We have morally won the level one challenge at this point, but we have to repeat it at the X Prize Cup to claim the prize," he said.

Pixel has also done a tethered 192 second flight, which demonstrates the duration for a level two prize, Carmack pointed out.

Over this coming weekend, the Armadillo Aerospace team will attempt to do back-to-back, on-the-clock, greater than 180 second flights as would be required for a level two prize. "If that is successful, we will head back out to Oklahoma to perform equivalent free-flights," Carmack said.

Carmack noted in his website report that the modular craft's higher thrust to weight ratio is very apparent as it really leaps into the air on throttle up. "I still think vertical drag racing with two of these will be really damn cool."

High diving platform

An Armadillo Aerospace four module vehicle will probably be flying a "Space Diving" mission next year, Carmack explained. "If we don't wreck it in testing high altitude flight, we are considering doing a staging demo, flying the fifth module off the four module cluster, which would be a solidly 100 kilometer-plus vehicle."

The commercial piloted vehicle, rocketing upwards to 328,000 feet (100 kilometers), Carmack added, should be a cluster of six to nine improved modules in a single stage for full redundancy, "with a nice cabin on top."

Armadillo Aerospace is working with Orbital Outfitters, a startup firm with offices in North Hollywood, California. Orbital Outfitters intends to test their Suborbital Space Suit 1 using an Armadillo Aerospace-provided rocket platform. A space-suited individual would fly to high-altitude — then dive from the platform back to Earth.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.