(continued from previous page)
Conversely, is your work at Armadillo seeping into any games you're designing for id Software?
Carmack: We keep talking about trying to collect some media shots of real rocket engine thrusts for a current game, but it's unlikely that there will be any real direct crossover there.
Do you plan to be one of the first space tourists with Armadillo or any of the other competitors?
Carmack: If you talk to a lot of people in the new space companies, a lot of them are real true believers, and they've always wanted to go to space. That's not really a motivator for me. I would want to do it, but it's more along the lines of like driving one of my Ferraris 200 miles an hour. It's this huge rush, but it's not so much a lifelong dream or anything.
I probably wouldn't be one of the very first ones, but I would want to be in like the first 1,000 to reach space. I think that there is a cache to that that would be worth $200,000 to me. But I certainly plan on doing it on our own vehicle.
What do you think the threshold will be for space tourism to become a wider sport for the public?
Carmack: I think that you'll get at least 500 people that will pay the $200,000. And then I think the price will start to steadily go down when you get two vendors out there. They'll start undercutting each other, but the early generation of ships won't go down much below $100,000. (When the industry) builds a more cost-effective vehicle, it will start coming down more, and eventually, maybe 10 years from now, it will be a $10,000 ride located someplace like a quick ride from Vegas, where people can just go and do their mad-money thing, dropping $10,000 on a ride.
Will Armadillo be one of the first generation of vehicles out there?
Carmack: Yes, I honestly think that we are the closest, next to (Burt) Rutan (president of Scaled Composites and winner of the $10 million Ansari X Prize to fly into suborbit twice in a week). Obviously, everyone is behind him because he has demonstrated the capability, so I think it's almost a forgone conclusion that they will succeed on this. The distressing fact about most of these other companies is that they've never flown anything.
But you're in the same boat.
Carmack: But, we went into this knowing, with our eyes open, that we don't know everything about this. So instead, we incrementally tested, developed and learned all of these things. We've made 13 different flying vehicles in the last six years, and we've learned something different from each of them. We've explored just about every control authority system possible--altitude-control jets, differential throttling--and we've actually flown vehicles with this, not just studied them.
One of the things I'm most proud of with the X Prize Cup (2006), is that those two vehicles went from concept to flight in six months, and it only cost us about a quarter of a million dollars. Each of those vehicles, while they only went up that 50 meters over a 100 meters there, they have more delta-v than SpaceShipOne. They're very potent vehicles. Our next generation of vehicles is going to leverage this exact same set of systems--just kind of double everything up and modularize it, and that will be a commercial 100-kilometer vehicle, and it won't have cost us that much.How much have you invested in Armadillo since founding it six years ago?
Carmack: I have spent about $3 million.
Is it worth every penny to you?
Carmack: Yeah. After I found out that this was definitely something holding my interest, I stopped buying Ferraris. I wound up selling all of my turbocharged Ferraris, and this satisfies all of the mechanical urges.
A lot of the companies try to put on this big corporate face about how they're going to go out and conquer the galaxy. We don't try to make people take us too seriously because we just go about our own business and people's opinion of us doesn't really matter all that much.
But now with this latest generation of vehicles, a lot of people in positions of importance--in the Department of Defense or the Air Force Research Laboratories or NASA--are really looking at us and being very impressed by what we're doing. We're still probably a couple million dollars of investment away before we start to wind up flying your average $200,000 ticket holder, but we're doing this at a level that's sustainable for me. The fact that we've been doing this on essentially a volunteer, part-time basis with the funding coming from essentially my salary at id Software, it puts us in a position where we can do the right thing technically.
What do you think of being a sole competitor at this year's Lunar Landing Challenge? Is that indicative of how difficult it is to take on developing next generation lunar vehicles?
Carmack: Well the price values are too low to encourage any of the conventional aerospace companies to wind up doing any of this. The million-dollar price for level two (of the competition) is enough to attract people like Acuity that have some technical credentials, and it could probably mount a reasonable effort had it given sufficient time and money to put toward it.
To some degree, we intentionally plan on scaring off most of the competitors because obviously we want to win.
What else is in it for you besides the prize money?
Carmack: The major motivator for me really is the engineering challenge.
Right now is an opportunity for key people to make a real difference, too. The fact that much of rocketry hasn't been thought about clearly since the '50s or '60s; things have just progressed down this one expensive, large government-funded path, and people have ignored all the other possibilities. Someone can go in now and make a real difference.
It's far from a sure thing. The general rule is that 90 percent or more of every single start-up is going to fail, and there is no difference here. It's far from the foregone conclusion that the new space age is here.
Do you think the space tourism business is at the beginning of an Internet bubble or something similar?
Carmack: I don't think it's going to be. I mean I'd be thrilled if it does turn into a little bubble and people start throwing stupid money around like they did the dot-com era, but I'm certainly not relying on that or expecting it.
It is still going to be a niche business for quite some time and it's not something that's going to impact every man in the street. The more likely scenario would be that some government agency decides that this development path is really significant and the DOD or NASA makes a significant investment there.
I think it will make its way one step at a time. We can go from air shows or vertical drag racing to space diving to suborbital space tourists to orbital space tourists, to voyages to the moon. We're finally at the point where we have capabilities that allow us to do things that people are willing to pay for. So I think the real bootstrapping starts here, and hopefully I've sunk most of the money that I'm going to into this and we can start slowly crawling up to being a successful business venture.