Rockets, Hookahs and Flamin' Hot Cheetos: Lighting A Fire At QuakeCon 2010

As Master o' Doom John Carmack wrapped his keynote sermon yesterday evening, the old familiar QuakeCon rhythm began drumming back to life, tap-tap-slurp, in the dim and sprawling tournament hall full of home-built gaming towers, beady-eyed gamers lit by their screens and enough snack foods to stock a few 7-Elevens.

To-go orders of all walks streamed into the Hilton Anatole as the evening wore on -- Zini's, Domino's, Jimmy John's. It might have just as easily been a convention for delivery drivers. By and large, though, what's keeping the gamers going this weekend are all the usual desktop snacks, only bigger: The big bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, the gallon carton of Cheddar Goldfish, the two-liter Dr Pepper.

Most of the snack-scarfing set hewed to an ultra-casual T-shirt-and-shorts presentation -- it's barely light enough in that tourney hall to read your neighbor's clever T-shirt, but some more image-conscious showed up decked out as extravagantly as the best-endowed computers, like the woman sporting high-heel black leather boots and tight jeans, or the guy in a full-body Frylock suit.

The two brand-new, soon-to-be-awarded Mustangs weren't even the sweetest rides sitting in the showroom. That distinction has to go to the towering rocket standing beside one wall, a nod to Carmack's other company, Armadillo Aerospace.

In fact, Carmack wasn't done onstage after his marathon keynote. He followed it immediately with a panel on NewSpace and rocketry, joined by fellow NewSpace pioneer Richard Garriott, an X-Prize foundation board member, creator of the early video game franchise Ultima, and one of a handful of dudes on this green earth who can make Carmack look like less of a geek by comparison.

A smaller crowd sat in on this session than for Carmack's keynote, but based on the big words thrown around during the lengthy Q-and-A session, the audience was packed with budding amateur rocketeers who knew their stuff -- and were psyched about the possibility of getting involved. "I am fully wiling to beta-test your first human cargo-carrying rocket," one kid offered Carmack. "I'll do it for free."

Carmack rehashed the progress Armadillo's made in its first decade around, in terms that would easily appeal to his game-savvy crowd. "I went into this thinking that I wanted to make experimenting in aerospace as much like software as possible," Carmack said. "My belief is that iteration is the key to almost all progress...repeated cycling and testing and improving."

"Space travel has been so inappropriately mythologized that it has kept people from looking at the problem like anything else," he said. "The truth is, rocketry is actually really damn simple. The consequences of failure are really high... it's not like your code crashes your computer and you restart," but "the rockets are just nowhere near as complicated as the things we do on video games." Which is lucky, Carmack said, given all the on-the-fly reprogramming he tends to do with Armadillo rockets sitting out on pad, in the last minutes before a launch.

He showed a video full of rocket launches and a narrated history of Armadillo, (it's up for download it on Armadillo's site), drawing the biggest cheers of the evening when he drowned out the narrator during one launch to offer, "One of these days, I'm going to bring that to QuakeCon and fire that in the parking lot."

"I think we're closing in on a critical mass where the industry is going to be able to succeed," Carmack said. "It's not there yet. It's still possible" that the young industry could die out. Still, he said, "I really don't see what's going to stop us right now."

For his part, Garriott gave a broader overview of the NewSpace landscape, covering Armadillo competitors Blue Origin, SpaceX and inflatable space-hotel maker Bigelow Aerospace. Garriott, an astronaut's son raised in a NASA neighborhood during the heyday of Apollo, said he "grew up believing that everybody was going to space, because everybody I knew did go to space."

Garriott described his trip aboard the Russian Soyuz, which made him the sixth private citizen to ride into space -- he'd been slated to be the first, he said, until the internet crash of 2000 forced him to sell his seat to Dennis Tito.

Garriott doesn't like the term "space tourist" that's often applied to him because, he said, "I spent 30 years investing in the privatization of space. I was really looking at this as a business, not a joyride. Although it was a pretty joyful ride."

A diverse set of new astronauts -- not the typical crop of ex-pilots and doctors -- riding into space with private operations, Garriott said, is what's going to dictate the course of private spaceflight, and the new applications nobody's even considered yet. "It's other people like us, who are not test pilots, who are going to make the difference."

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