Rocket Men From Mesquite's Armadillo Aerospace Are in Line For $1 Million X Prize
Armadillo Aerospace's Neil Milburn guides Scorpius off a trailer bed after its successful launches Saturday afternoon.
Photos by Patrick Michels
He'd just guided his 1,900-pound rocket to a successful simulated moon landing, but while his teammates rushed to refuel for a second flight -- their ticket to a $1 million prize and serious bragging rights -- gaming guru John Carmack sat at his keyboard troubleshooting, tapping new adjustments into the rocket's program code.
Carmack, founder of Mesquite-based id Software and the mind behind games like Wolfenstein, Quake and Doom, noticed the rocket, nicknamed "Scorpius," hadn't made any adjustments for gusts of wind on its first flight, and decided he'd need to correct the roll thruster's code before another launch -- a last-second tweak to an intricate program his Armadillo Aerospace team had tested over and over before this.
Scorpius hovers hundreds of feet over the Caddo Mills airport on its first three-minute flight -- enough time, Armadillo engineers say, to lift the rocket into space.
They'd watched hours slip by waiting out the Saturday morning rain, but now time was suddenly critical. The clock was running while officials from the X Prize Foundation kept the time that competition from across the country would be gunning for. A quarter-mile from Carmack, out in a Caddo Mills airport field, Armadillo's crew prepped for a simulated launch back into lunar orbit, swarming around the rocket in matching blue jumpsuits. When a hose came loose under pressure and snapped back into Russ TK's face, there was only time to slap a strip of duct tape over the gash and keep working.
At his computer, Carmack wrapped up his last-second fix, and with the rocket refueled, it was ready to fly again. More than 50 friends, fans and family members watching from the field shouted as the countdown came over walkie-talkie: "Three ... two ... one ..."
And then, nothing.
Carmack raced through the possible reasons behind the ignition failure, this time with an added time crunch: the fuel inside the rocket -- liquid oxygen kept hundreds of degrees below zero -- was burning off at a rate of three pounds per minute. If he didn't get the program fixed soon, the rocket wouldn't make its flight at all.
He traced the problem back to his most recent code tweak, made the fix and with a keystroke, tried the ignition again. (Carmack traded his Microsoft SideWinder joystick for a keyboard early on, to simplify the process. "It's a pretty boring game, as it is," he joked later.)
This time the rocket lifted from the pad and rose above the trees, slowly, it seemed, from the viewing area 15,000 feet away, resting comfortably in midair atop a stream of orange flame.
After three minutes the rocket landed on a second pad nearby, only a couple feet from its target, as a cheer went up from spectators in the field.
Carmack, with a celebratory Diet Coke, flanked by his Armadillo teammates (from left) Russ Blink, Neil Milburn, Tommy Bishop and Phil Eaton after the launch.
After waiting out the weather all day, the Armadillo squad finally gave spectators something to look at.
The flight made nine-year-old Armadillo the only team to complete the second level of Northrop Grumman's Lunar Lander Challenge (Carmack and crew already bagged the Level 1 title last year), with the October 31 deadline coming up fast. Two other teams have launches scheduled for late October, but both have yet to complete Level 1 flights and are considered long shots to compete with Carmack and crew.
While most of the spectators had a family member on the team, a handful of other gear-heads and rocket enthusiasts waited out the rain delay, including Danny Black, a telecoms worker from Plano who's been following the team's work for three or four years, he said, since stumbling across one of their launches in a parking lot. "They call me the Armadillo stalker," Black told another rocket fan before the launch.
Peter Diamandis, whose X Prize Foundation already handed out $40 million for a privately funded manned spaceflight, was one of the team's loudest cheerleaders. Diamandis called Saturday's flight "a stepping stone toward suborbital tourism, rocket racing and landing on the moon."
As the team rolled back to the hangar with Scorpius in tow (the rocket's named for the long white pressurization tanks mounted on either side), Diamandis rushed up to congratulate them.
"You got that big check for us?" Blink asked, duct tape still patched over his left cheek.
Diamandis grinned broadly. "Soon," he yelled back.
We've got plenty more photos from the launch day here in our slide show.
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