By Jim Schutze
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Tommy Bishop, a rocket club friend who'd joined Blink's company, eventually joined them on the back dock. "We all showed up and we just worked," Bishop remembers. "There were no real specific assignments. Now, it's different."
"The first vehicles were really tiny things. It was like, 'What's the minimum thing we can put together that a computer can control?'" Blink recalls. From there, though, they progressed quickly, through traditional-looking rockets like the orange-tipped Flying Crayon to a rocket-powered table carried by four engines. Starting from scratch, they developed a broad knowledge base as they tested out new engines and propellants, test-launching their designs in open fields. The space next door to Blink's company became vacant, and they turned it into Armadillo headquarters.
"When the X Prize came about, things changed a little bit," Blink says. The prize—for making the first two privately funded manned flights to space within a two-week period—had been around since 1996, but interest around the country picked up as the 2004 deadline approached, and Armadillo chased it. Besides, if Armadillo wanted to put a man in space, they'd have to scale up their rockets someday anyway. Blink, the smallest of the team members, fit best inside the aluminum tube for the "payload," and became the guinea pig, strapping himself against the bulkhead and sitting on a pile of foam for drop-tests to gauge G-forces in a landing on a crushable nose cone.
Eaton says they spent a year testing and adjusting a peroxide-powered chair they'd designed before they made three successful flights in a row and decided it was safe for Blink to ride. "We had an ambulance on site, just in case," the post-flight journal reads. Video of the September 2002 flight shows Blink in a yellow hooded hazmat suit in the parking lot behind a warehouse, strapping into the chair between two big tanks like Marty McFly into a DeLorean. The rockets fire and Blink, hands neatly in his lap, lifts a few feet off the ground. The chair flies forward, then back a few feet before landing hard after six seconds in the air. Blink became the first and only team member to fly an Armadillo rocket—even if it was just five feet off the ground.
With extensive online video documenting their flights and failures, and growing interest in all 26 of the X Prize competitors, Armadillo quickly developed a global fan following, fed by the fact that team members, usually Carmack or Milburn, regularly answered questions about their progress in Armadillo's online forum. Carmack's star power in the gaming world may have helped their popularity too, as suggested by a June 2004 question from one "faithful disciple": "Are you the second coming JC? Come to take those who believe up into the sky? In the beginning, you brought us Doom, now conversely Rapture." Along with sales pitches from people hawking antigravity or perpetual motion devices, Milburn told an interviewer on the "Space Show" podcast in 2008 that at least 50 fans write in each week hoping to volunteer.
Ahead of the X Prize deadline, the team's mystique only grew, as news reports that handicapped the competition focused on Armadillo's hobbyist pedigree. "There's a mystique and mythology about it, but it's completely out of proportion with its level of difficulty," Carmack said in an October 2003 interview with the Dallas Business Journal. "A computer is radically more advanced than a rocket ship." Ultimately, the X Prize challenge proved too complex to tackle before the 2004 deadline, for Armadillo and all but one of its competitors.
The team that won the X Prize was, in many ways, the ultimate insider, led by the mutton-chopped engineer and aviation evangelist Burt Rutan and his Mojave, California-based company, Scaled Composites. Their manned plane SpaceShipOne flew to an altitude of more than 62 miles, beating the prize's deadline by less than two weeks. It was a high point in private spaceflight that other companies will be hard pressed to beat.
The deaths of three Scaled Composites employees in 2007, during early fuel tests for SpaceShipTwo, which was being developed for Virgin Galactic, marked a corresponding low point for the company and a reminder of the dangers in any space startup business. Stories around the X Prize focused on the garage-startup side of the industry, but that's an image Armadillo shies away from, preferring to focus on its decade of expertise and safety precautions. These safety measures got a test in October 2007 when Armadillo flew its "quad" rocket Texel, with four tanks arranged around a single engine, in an attempt to win the new Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. After landing hard on the runway, the engine failed to shut down and Texel bounced back up in the air until Carmack, watching with team members at a distance, triggered the hard cut-off. Texel fell back down onto the pad and unleashed an enormous fireball.
The neighbors were getting restless after years of rocket tests at the North Dallas warehouse. In 2008, with plans for even bigger rockets and their lease about to expire, Armadillo decided it was time to move. They tried a few other locations, launching for a while in a field outside Rockwall, where their first launch spooked a rancher's horses, sending them bounding over his fence. Eaton began looking even farther out, driving east of Dallas in search of airports marked on his GPS. In Caddo Mills, he found a quiet runway and a hangar left behind by a sailplane business. Eaton went before the Caddo Mills City Council to discuss moving in, and discovered he'd been scheduled right after a Texas Department of Transportation group told the council it should find some new uses for the airport. The timing was perfect. Armadillo moved into the hangar that May.