Nearly six years ago, Carmack founded Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace to build next-generation vehicles for transporting people and payloads into suborbit. Still under development, his experimental rockets were put to the test at last month's X Prize Cup, as the lone competitors in a NASA-funded contest to build and fly a lunar vehicle.
Armadillo's rockets, called Pixel and Texel, didn't win the $1 million-plus prize money (their legs buckled upon landing). But they did fly and, in doing so, offered hope that a hyped commercial space tourism industry could get off the ground.
Carmack is a rocketry hobbyist, thanks to a "geek childhood with model rockets and science fiction." He only really got serious about the prospect of building space vehicles after funding two participants in a small contest hosted by the Space Frontier Foundation. He still works full time at Doom- and Quake-seller id Software, which defined the genre of first-person shooter games and remain two of the all-time best-selling video games. He devotes the rest of his time to Armadillo, along with about eight part-time engineers and rocketry specialists. Armadillo is funded solely by Carmack.
CNET News.com caught up with Carmack after the X Prize Cup 2006.
Q: You caught some flack for Armadillo's performance at the X Prize Cup. Was it merited?
Some people have derisively said that I'm trying to make aerospace development like software with the implication that that's like an awful way to do it. I would say they're exactly right, I am trying to make this like software because software has progressed so many orders of magnitude better than aerospace has it's not even funny. If we can make aerospace anything more like software--where you can just try things out, hack it out, make it work, improve it as necessary--that will be a tremendous advance. And that is very much what we're trying to do.
How do you feel about Pixel's performance at the X Prize Cup this year?
It's worth noting, there were two absolutely critical things we had to test before the team but couldn't: ground liftoffs and landing; and horizontal translations. When we got there we were pleased that the horizontal translation worked. We were not so pleased with the legs breaking off. We really needed another 30 or 60 days to test, and if we had a little bit better weather, we could have caught the (problems).
The fact that we were able to get the vehicle up--lift it off right on the count down--is a reasonably significant accomplishment. The propellant loading, liftoff, elevation to 100 feet and translation of 50 feet all went flawlessly. It's the landing we had the problem with.
Will Pixel be revived for next year's Lunar Lander Challenge, or will Armadillo engineer a new vehicle?
Yeah, since we got back from Cup we've re-hydrotested everything, and it was fine. It's pretty likely that both these vehicles will be in flight shape for next year. We want to use these vehicles for our vertical drag racing event this year, so we might wreck one before then.
What are the vertical drag races?
We've been pitching that as an adjunct event to the Rocket Racing League event (a NASCAR-inspired rocket racing event expected to launch in late 2007). It's taking two vehicles, similar to the ones we're talking about now, and set them out at an air show. You'd have a vertical racetrack with a Christmas tree that counts down. The two would launch and burn at full acceleration for a quarter mile or so, or about 9 to 10 seconds, and then coast for another mile. Bright lights on the vehicle would change when they hit the finish line.
We've been negotiating with RRL since early this year about forming a commercial contest. We've retired all the risk, shown vehicles can fly and come down. It's a pretty good bet we're going to do it this next year.