By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Play it in slow motion, cue the orchestra and cut to a fluttering flag, and this scene could beat the richest Hollywood cliché. The rocket men are returning from their mission, seven of them in matching blue jumpsuits, mission patches on their sleeves. Riding on a massive flatbed truck, they bounce down the road cut through an open field, their rocket still hot from its launch.
One has a badge of duct tape over a gash on his cheek, but it's big grins and waves all around as their families stream out to meet them in the road. A kid in a spacesuit runs out for a hug, rows of fans hang back to snap photos and the boys from NASA stroll up to offer hearty handshakes.
With this kind of welcome, they might as well have returned from landing on the moon. They haven't, of course—haven't even gone into space. On this rainy mid-September day in 2009, the men of Armadillo Aerospace, a private spaceflight company, have just completed the highest level of the X Prize Foundation's Lunar Lander Challenge, putting them in line for a million-dollar prize from NASA.
So what if the moon rocks are fake? The thrill is real and so is the rocket they've built, a 10-foot monster named Scorpius that runs on liquid oxygen and ethanol in two stacked round tanks, balanced on four legs and topped by a box of electronics. Hours earlier, Scorpius had taken off from a launch pad in a field, landed on a simulated moonscape, refueled and flown back.
Now, with the rocket raised to stand on the truck bed behind them, the jumpsuited heroes pose in front of it, allowing their fans—and their egos—a little post-flight indulgence.
The lunar challenge had kept the best of the country's spaceflight startups occupied for years, and now with this successful launch 40 miles east of Dallas, Armadillo has become the first to complete its second and final level, cementing its place at the pinnacle of the NewSpace movement, a cluster of private companies making spaceflight more efficient, more affordable and more accessible than it's ever been. Nobody else had even made it to level one.
The team's president, John Carmack, strolls out in a more typical Armadillo uniform: white team T-shirt, khaki cargo shorts and one hand around a Diet Coke, looking and sounding every bit the video game guru he is, the visionary behind games such as Doom and Quake. He recounts last-second adjustments he'd made to get Scorpius flying again after its touchdown on the moon, racing to correct his launch code before the rocket's liquid oxygen evaporated. "It's boiling off something like three pounds a minute. If we lost 30 pounds on there, we'd be really marginal," Carmack says. "That was rather stressful."
Also in the crowd is Peter Diamandis, the New Space movement's biggest booster, who jumpstarted a generation of small aerospace companies 15 years ago by dreaming up and helping fund the original X Prize. Earlier he told reporters he was simply an Armadillo fan, and there are plenty of those filling out the crowd too—rocket buffs, gamers out to meet the legendary Carmack, even a guy who hadn't cared about rockets until the day he heard an explosion near his office and couldn't believe it when he learned it was a rocket going off in North Dallas.
The duct-taped Russ Blink, an Armadillo co-founder, shouts over the crowd to Diamandis, asking in mock seriousness, "You got that big check for us?"
Diamandis grins and shouts back, "Soon."
It sure looked that way at the time, but no. Three weeks later, the X Prize judges made the controversial choice to give Masten Space Systems an extra day to fly to the simulated moon and back, because its Xombie rocket had been damaged by fire on the first day and needed more time for repairs. Not only did they complete the flight, but their landings were 68 centimeters more accurate than Armadillo's. Carmack's group took home the $500,000 second prize.
Although Carmack remains bitter about Masten's deadline extension, Armadillo co-founder Phil Eaton takes a more circumspect approach. "We have a goal to build an industry, and obviously that requires more than one company," he says.
For those in "the industry," alternately called "NewSpace" or "Alt Space" or, to be more precise, "alt.space," their timing couldn't be better. In February, President Obama announced that he'd cut from this year's NASA budget the Constellation program, the space shuttle's replacement, putting an end to its slow progress and ballooning costs. Last month at the Kennedy Space Center, Obama spoke about the space program's new direction: Send Americans to Mars by the mid-2030s, land on an asteroid and turn to private industry to "make getting to space easier and more affordable."
Scrapping the program that would have taken the U.S. back to the moon is not without its critics, including former astronaut Neil Armstrong, who worries that we are simply handing Russia and China the keys to space. After Obama's April speech about NASA, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby criticized the plan as "a welfare program for the commercial space industry...where the taxpayer subsidizes billionaires to build rockets that NASA hopes will one day allow millionaires, and our own astronauts, to travel in space."