8 August 2002
Features - Vehicles (Good)
The Armadillo Rocketeers
You'll believe an armadillo can fly
by Alan Breakstone
In Mesquite, Texas, a small group of technicians and enthusiasts is quietly working to open space to the general public. Armadillo Aerospace is one of a growing number of start-up ventures attempting to accomplish what NASA and the big aerospace companies refuse to do: send paying passengers from all walks of life into space to find their destiny or to have a bit of fun.

Computer games guru John Carmack started Armadillo Aerospace to fill the void--literally and figuratively--left by space agencies and defense conglomerates.

"I first got bit by the space bug about two and a half years ago," says Carmack, "largely due to the Space Frontier Foundation's CATS prize."

The CATS (Cheap Access To Space) Prize was offered to the first private group to build and launch a simple unpiloted rocket to the edge of space (100 kilometers, roughly 62.5 miles). The CATS Prize competition lasted only a limited time, and as no team reached the desired altitude, the prize was never awarded. But several teams made significant progress in high-altitude rocketry in the attempt.

"I didn't have the skills to actually compete at the time," says Carmack, "but I funded the last year of work for two of the teams (JP Aerospace and SORAC) while I was building my knowledge base. When I was ready to start pursuing my own projects, I contacted the local high-power rocketry society to see if there were any local people interested in working at the high end of experimental rocketry."

With that, Carmack began assembling his team. Through the aforementioned high-power rocketeers, he met Phil Eaton, who had been working with Russ Blink on experimental hydrogen peroxide rockets. Eaton brought in Neil Milburn and Joseph LaGrave. Carmack then drafted his Ferrari mechanic, Bob Norwood, to help out. Today, Armadillo Aerospace includes two more members and, according to their web site (www.armadilloaerospace.com), an armadillo named Widget. The staff (except, presumably, Widget) got to work not only on designing but also building rocket vehicles.

Recently, Armadillo Aerospace has built and flown several small, unpiloted vertical takeoff and landing ( VTVL) craft for low-altitude testing. The Armadillo team has chosen to start their development program using simple hydrogen peroxide rockets, not too different from the propulsion system used in the "rocket belt" jet packs of the 1960s. This simplifies development while the team uses the landers to perfect their flight control system.

"Our entire three-axis, stabilized propulsion system is less complicated than a single one of XCOR's LOX/alcohol engines," says Carmack, who is an investor in XCOR and supports their work. But, Carmack says, "we are taking complimentary directions to space."

Armadillo is now developing a piloted lander scaled up from the smaller craft. "I would not expect anyone to go higher than about 50 feet with it," says Carmack. "In theory, it could build up about 100 m/s velocity if flown flat out, but that would be a bad idea, given the lack of streamlining."

The X-Prize, the US$10 million award for the first private team to send paying passengers on a sub-orbital spaceflight, then do it again two weeks later, is Armadillo Aerospace's ultimate goal--one that John Carmack thinks he may have a shot at winning. But the team first plans to cut its teeth on several additional vehicles. "Our first streamlined tubular vehicle will be flying soon (unmanned)," says Carmack, "but it will only go a few thousand feet high. The next vehicle will be a manned vehicle aimed at breaking the low altitude time-to-climb record. After that will probably be a vehicle aimed at a single-man space shot. Then it will be time for an X-Prize vehicle."

The program reflects a conservative build-and-test strategy for winning the X-Prize. "The teams that think they are going to build an X-Prize vehicle on their first try are kidding themselves," warns Carmack. "Mistakes will be made, and it is much better to make mistakes with smaller vehicles than larger vehicles."

Each vehicle teaches Armadillo Aerospace what to do and what not to do in building and flying a tourist rocketship, from perfecting the attitude control system to selecting the right design for the landing gear. "We hope to be proving our laser altimeter based auto-hover and auto-land soon," says Carmack.

While development of the interim vehicles is underway, Armadillo's engineers are already designing the X-Prize vehicle. "We have already gone through two prospective designs," says Carmack, "so there is a high likelihood that what we are currently thinking is not what we will be building in 2004."

The vehicle will most likely be vertical takeoff and landing, and it will probably use hydrogen peroxide and kerosene, though Armadillo is also working with other propellant combinations. "We have not nailed down exactly what combination of parachute / rocket thrust / rocket rotor will be used for descent," says Carmack. "We will be learning a lot with our upcoming test vehicles."

The 2000's are an exciting time for commercial spaceflight. The dream of access to space for everyone is becoming reality. And Armadillo Aerospace plans that one of the pioneering companies to open this new frontier will include on its staff an armadillo called Widget.
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Alan Breakstone 8 August 2002
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