Obama's NASA plans are spelled out in the agency's budget, which faces plenty more opposition in Congress. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is gathering support for a compromise that would keep the shuttle flying two missions a year, to ensure the U.S. has a secure, proven way to keep the International Space Station stocked and running.

Far from giving up the space race, Eaton says the country's space startup community represents America's best chance at reclaiming a lead it ceded long ago. "We all thought that it had to be done at a national level, and when we realized that it didn't, now you have companies like Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, XCOR or Virgin Galactic, and they're all saying, 'We can do this.'"

Already in 2004, Diamandis awarded Virgin Galactic $10 million for making the first privately funded manned set of flights into space. Since that time, other X Prize suitors like Armadillo and Masten have matured into players for the millions NASA won't be spending on the shuttle after this year. Aerospace giants such as Boeing and Lockheed are looking forward to NASA's money as much as anyone, but like IBM or Microsoft in the golden age of computer startups, they are the established, bureaucratic dinosaurs, with noses so deep in government business it hardly matters where one ends and the other begins. As NASA grows into a sponsor of new technology, it's looking to entrepreneurs, down where there's still room to make the decisions that look flat-out crazy until you realize they make perfect sense.

In 2009, Carmack says his company completed 20 launches with its rockets flying loose, and too many flights to count with a rocket tethered to a crane. Armadillo has won new contracts from NASA and its engines have powered rocket-racing planes through 50 flights last year. Last month they inked a deal with Space Adventures—the same space tourism agency that brokered Dennis Tito's $20 million seat on the Russian Soyuz in 2001—to book rides aboard future Armadillo flights to space for the low price of $102,000. That's half of what Virgin Galactic plans to charge.

Despite his competitive and creative zeal, Carmack is a pragmatist at heart, and Armadillo's core strategy reflects it. "Let's not take things that are so at the limit of what we can afford that we're too scared to fail. Because then you'll never try," he says. In other words: fly a lot, learn from your crashes.

For the rocket boys who grew up with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, space hasn't been this exciting since 1969. Phil Eaton was four years old when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon—that's when he decided he wanted to be an astronaut too. He built model rockets as a kid, but would give up his dream to become an electrical engineer. Only in the mid-'90s did he return to rocketry, but more as a hobby he could share with his own children. His rekindled interest led him to the Dallas Area Rocket Society, surrounded by plenty of other "born-again rocketeers." "I still had the passion for the model rockets, and started getting bigger ones," Eaton recalls. "Pretty soon you couldn't buy a big enough rocket motor off the shelf that had the performance you wanted, and you had to make your own."

Through a mutual friend, Eaton met Russ Blink, a former Texas Instruments engineer who built rocket engines in his spare time. In the late '90s, they worked together on big projects, six- and seven-footers they'd light up at big rocket meets. Eaton and Blink combined their talents flying a 60-pound miniature of the X-30 National Aero-Space Plane, a Reagan-era craft that was never produced, but was designed to fly at 25 times the speed of sound. They flew a rocket with seven motors, which they named "Atomic Balls."

"We decided that we needed to get more serious about building some liquid rocket engines together," Eaton recalls, but that was tough because they worked on opposite sides of Dallas—Eaton in Duncanville and Blink near Richardson. Eaton took a job at the company Blink had co-founded in the early '90s, Long Range Systems, which makes the light-up, vibrating pagers that let you know your table's ready at restaurants. After work, they built rockets on the back loading dock. They spent $50 to $100 a month on supplies and distilled highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide rocket fuel overnight in Blink's garage.

For a young Neil Milburn growing up in Middlesbrough, England, it was Sputnik rather than Apollo 11 that caused him to fantasize about space travel. In 1958, he watched from the distance of his smoggy, industrial hometown as the U.S. began developing its own space program, playing catch-up with the Russians. Kept out of the Royal Air Force because of his eyesight, he went to Leeds to study chemical engineering in the early '70s, and amassed experience doing engineering work with startup companies. He took his career to the U.S. in 1982, and by the late '90s was living in Plano, nearing retirement, when he found the rocket society, then found the loading dock behind Blink's warehouse.

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