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They built rockets together for a few months, Eaton recalls, before he got an e-mail from Carmack, introducing himself and asking if Eaton would be interested in meeting to discuss a possible collaboration. Blink recalls thinking Carmack's name sounded familiar at first, but he couldn't place it. "Then it just clicked the next day," Blink remembers. "It was like, 'Do you know who John Carmack is? Holy cow, he's got money.'"
Carmack wasn't lured to spaceflight by any childhood dreams of taming the final frontier. Growing up in suburban Kansas City, he read some science fiction in the course of what he recalls was his "typical geek childhood," but instead he got hooked on computer programming. At 14, he was arrested for trying to steal an Apple II and spent a year in a juvenile home, during which time he invented a giant role-playing game called Wraith. He dropped out of college to code full-time, eventually creating Wolfenstein 3D, the seminal first-person shooter game with a dungeon labyrinth filled with Nazis, attack dogs and ammo. More intense shoot-'em-ups like Doom and Quake turned his Mesquite-based company id Software into one of the most buzz-worthy players in the gaming world.
Carmack ran his company with a kind of ideological purity that gamers could relate to, becoming an outspoken supporter of open-source programs—letting users see and modify the code. He turned up in person at an impromptu gathering of id Software fans at a motel in Garland in 1996, holding court with fans one night in a scene that replays itself in the keynote speech he delivers at the annual happening now called QuakeCon. Last year more than 7,000 gamers packed the Gaylord Texan Resort's convention space for the three-day tournament, each traveling with a custom-built gaming computer tucked under one arm and, maybe, a suitcase in the other. QuakeCon is for gaming, not sleep.
At first, Carmack's video game fortune went to custom Ferraris, but in 2000, after a series of stories about private spaceflight on the tech blog Slashdot caught his eye, Carmack began looking at custom vehicles more extreme than any of his cars. Compared to the cutthroat gaming industry, he saw gross inefficiency in the aerospace business, he says, and approached the industry like it was something to fix. Back in the '50s and '60s, space technology development was fast and costly, and after the space race was over, aerospace companies discovered a long-term market for big-ticket products such as missiles and other weaponry. Chasing a budget space market just never became worthwhile, Carmack says. "For me it really was just the sense of untapped opportunity."
He met engineers competing in the Cheap Access to Space competition—a race to take an unmanned craft to suborbital space—and eventually bankrolled a few of them. Carmack practiced with some model rockets, and after the competition ended without a winner, he decided he wanted to join up with people who had hands-on rocket experience. "I thought it would be a better strategy to take people who are actually out there and doing things on some level," he says, "even if they're just essentially large bottle rockets."
He called the president of the Dallas Area Rocket Society and asked if there were any gung-ho rocketeers in the club working with big, liquid-fueled rockets, and the president mentioned Eaton, Blink and Milburn. At their meeting in 2000, Carmack told the three men he wanted to be involved in the team, not just write the checks. They agreed, and decided their rockets should be computer-guided, and Carmack would write the code for them. Their ultimate goal: a reusable vehicle that would carry humans to orbit.
Of course, they all still had their day jobs. "We made the commitment to meet twice a week," Eaton says. "We were consistent. We always showed up on Tuesday, always showed up on Saturday." Carmack's weekly recaps of their progress are still archived on Armadillo's website; they documented all their tests, enlisting Matthew Ross, who does video work for id Software, to shoot footage of the launches. Throughout the company's wins and crashes over the years, the posts are matter-of-fact, even when they touch on personal matters: Detailing the team's work on a "two-module dual-gimballed configuration" Carmack followed with this news: "For my birthday this year, my wife got me a crane truck."
James Bauer, a welder living in Oak Cliff, was a longtime id Software fan who had hoped to join the company and help develop three-dimensional scenes for the games. He realized, though, that he was better suited to working with his hands, and after following Armadillo's progress online for a year, he e-mailed Carmack in mid-2004 to see if his rocket team could use a welder. Carmack wrote back the next day, inviting him for a tryout. Bauer became Armadillo's first full-time employee, making the precise welds that hold Armadillo's fuel tanks together. "For a month or so it was really uncomfortable for me," he recalls, "Because these guys were working on rockets, and I thought of myself as just a regular Joe." Bauer handles the welding, but like Ross, who shoots video, or Joseph LaGrave, who drives the truck, it's a small team and building rockets quickly becomes everyone's job.