By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It's a cool spring morning in Caddo Mills, with rows of kids and parents lining a two-block stretch of downtown. The Armadillo team is back on the flatbed, jumpsuited and waving, throwing candy along the parade route during the town's annual Fox Fest celebration. Armadillo's old X Prize banner is hanging from the side, with a green sign taped to the corner that says "Go Foxes," for the town's high school mascot. LaGrave is driving the big crane truck, with Ross in back waving and taking pictures and Milburn, the grandfather and high school physics teacher, smiling broadly as the truck makes a wide right turn on Main Street. Surrounded by "moon rocks" from last fall's Lunar Lander Challenge, holding up a big American flag, Blink sits at the back of the trailer, in an old Russian cosmonaut suit one of the guys bought on eBay.
Pixel, their four-tanked rocket, sits on the trailer behind Blink, resting on the NASA landing gear that Armadillo's been contracted to test. A boy in the crowd casually points up and tells his mom, "It's cool how they build that." After the parade the Armadillo team collects a tall green trophy from the judges—second place—and heads back to the hangar. "I don't know, maybe we needed more green on there," LaGrave jokes.
The new home is 45 minutes from Dallas, and shortly after the company set up shop at the airport, Eaton found a house on the outskirts of Caddo Mills and moved his wife, daughters and baby son to be near the rockets. Now the white board covered in rocket schematics also has good-luck notes from Eaton's kids. It's been good to be a part of the small town, Eaton says, good that the fire department knew where to find him, for instance, the night there was a methane leak back at the hangar.
In fall 2008, Armadillo claimed the Level One X Prize Lunar Lander Challenge in New Mexico, flying its rocket for two 90-second flights and winning $350,000. They became the first team to tackle the Level Two challenge that year too—lighting up Pixel on the pad the very next day. An uneven mixture of liquid oxygen and fuel overheated the engine, burning through the engine nozzle and flipping Pixel upside down as it launched. They made their plans for next year's competition—the one Masten would come from behind to win, thanks to a last-minute rule change—but around this time, Eaton says, they also decided to begin focusing on sustained business over one-off wins like the X Prize. "You can't support a long-term business plan on prizes," Eaton says.
Earlier in 2008, they'd signed on to supply rocket engines for Diamandis' Rocket Racing League, a scheme Wired once described as a "NASCAR in the clouds," but the league struggled to gather the financial backing to get started. It was steadier than prize money, and, as Carmack later wrote on Armadillo's blog, he'd warmed to the idea of airplanes powered by Armadillo's rocket engines, running at 250 miles per hour.
After cashing NASA's prize check, Armadillo took on paid work for NASA too, most recently testing out methane engines and landing gear for a potential lunar lander. Eaton says he found it incredible that NASA's representatives took one at look at Pixel, the rocket that flipped over during the lunar challenge, saw it lying on the ground in the hangar next to their rocket designs three generations further along, and decided that's what they wanted to outfit a moon landing. As far as he was concerned, Armadillo's tests had already proven it was simpler and more stable to have a separate engine for each module (Pixel has two modules and one engine).
Carmack says he poured nearly $4 million into Armadillo in its first eight years, and only in the last two has the rocket company turned a profit. "I do have the fear that if we get stuck being a small-time contractor, we do a couple million dollars a year and just kind of get by on that. There are little aerospace companies all over the place like that, and I desperately don't want to be that," Carmack says. After selling id Software last year, he's got more free cash, and says he'll be using it to pump up Armadillo's operations. "We're going to hire some more people on staff and we're going to make things go faster, because now really is the time."
NewSpace has been fairly quiet in the mainstream since the hype around the first X Prize in 2004, but things are picking up. Visit Masten's website today and for just $250, you can send a kilogram of whatever you like—science projects, grandpa's ashes, you name it—aboard one of its rockets to space. Bigelow Aerospace, makers of inflatable space hotels, has already launched a pair of prototypes in orbit.
The biggest player of all is a man who Carmack calls "the white knight" of NewSpace, Elon Musk. In 2002, Musk, a South African software wiz, founded Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, with $100 million from the sale of his company, PayPal. In 2008, on its fourth attempt, SpaceX's Falcon 1 became the first privately funded rocket to reach orbit running on liquid fuel. After North Korea's failed rocket launch in 2009, Carmack sent an e-mail to Musk. It read, "Elon > Kim Jong-Il." "The notion that a private American citizen is able to accomplish what a major national power is unable to, it's a wonderful thing," Carmack says.