Ten Years of Armadillo Aerospace Memories, Plus a Chat With X Prize Founder Peter Diamandis

This week's paper version of Unfair Park includes the story of Armadillo Aerospace, the eight-man team of rocket builders that's grown into one of the country's leading NewSpace start-ups.

From their first days tinkering in a North Dallas loading dock a decade ago to their new home in a Caddo Mills airport hangar, they've meticulously documented their tests and launches with notes, photos and video posted on their Web site for budding rocketeers who'd join the budding cheap spaceflight industry. It's the same open source philosophy that Armadillo president John Carmack helped champion in the gaming world with his Doom and Quake franchises.

Of course, in with those diagrams, notes and launch videos, you'll find some impressive crashes. Perhaps most awesome of all is the launch video above from a 2007 competition in New Mexico, which ends in a monstrous fireball.

After the jump, you'll find more video from Armadillo flights and a Q&A with the X Prize Foundation's Peter Diamandis, who created the $10 million prize for the first private manned flight into space. And make sure to check out our slide show with more shots from a recent test launch.

In 2002, co-founder Russ Blink became the first Armadillo passenger, if only for a few seconds. Video courtesy Armadillo Aerospace.

Onboard cameras catch a 2009 Armadillo flight to 2,959 feet. Video by Armadillo Aerospace.

On the next page, read our Q&A with Peter Diamandis, who created the original X Prize for private spaceflight in 1996 and is still one of the industry's biggest boosters.

Peter Diamandis created the Ansari X Prize in 1996, as a scheme to promote cheap, private access to space -- $10 million to whoever could make and fly a manned ship to 100 km (the edge of space) and back, twice in two weeks. SpaceShipOne won the prize in 2004, but like many of the other companies in the race, Armadillo has continued to grow the new industry.

Do contests like the X Prize still have a role today, as spaceflight startups start becoming profitable on their own?

Incentive prizes like the Ansari X PRIZE and the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X Challenge are designed to jumpstart a stagnant or immature field. We target areas where progress has stalled not because we need a new law of physics, but rather because we haven't had the right people with the right resources and the right motivation working on it. We take great care to write our prize rules so that they describe the problem but don't limit the field of possible solutions.

By showing dramatically that the job is a difficult one, but one worthy of great rewards, we provide instant credibility to the competing teams -- transforming them from men and women with crazy ideas to people involved in a serious and important competition. We create a new pool of talented and passionate inventors in a field that may not have had any at all before our prizes started.

Beyond space tourism, what are the other most promising things that make opening access to space especially exciting?

Everything we value on Earth -- metals, minerals, real estate, energy -- are in near infinite quantity in space.

One of the most interesting areas is gaining access to metals and minerals in the asteroid belts. There are millions of asteroids of various sizes from something the size of your car to those larger than Manhattan. Many of these are rich in water, ice, or hydrocarbons, others are rich in Nickel-Iron, and yet others are enriched in "rare Earth metals" from platinum, gold, palladium to rhodium. Some of these metals will be very useful back on Earth, others will be useful in space as humanity expands beyond Earth's surface.

The guys at Armadillo take more of an engineer's approach to their work, but there's a romantic element to spaceflight too. Apart from the advances in engineering, what makes the private spaceflight movement so compelling?

Many are inspired by the grand potential space holds for humanity. We were inspired by what was accomplished in such a short time during the Apollo era and frustrated by how slowly the field has worked.

What has fundamentally changed in the past 40 years since Apollo is that small teams of individuals can now take on challenges once only possible for governments. The SpaceShipOne vehicle which one the Ansari X PRIZE in 2004, for example, was built by a team of 25 individuals for a cost of $26 million, and has three times the capability of the X-15 vehicle built 30 years earlier by a team of 1,000-plus people at a price in excess of $1 billion (in 2004 dollars). The Armadillo vehicle built by a team of eight people compares in capability to a the DC-X vehicle built 15 years earlier for a cost of $80 million.

Young children in particular are universally fascinated by the idea of space travel -- it's something that transcends nationalities. Right now, only the smallest fraction of us will ever get even a taste of what it's like to be in space; less than 600 people have ever made it into space in all of human history. Once companies like Armadillo and Virgin Galactic begin operating sub-orbital flights, we are likely to make more than 600 private astronauts in the first year of commercial operation.

If you look at the people who work at a company like Armadillo, these are the brilliant, passionate and visioneer individuals who never grew out of their childhood dreams. At heart, we're all still kids looking up at the stars and saying, "That's what I want to do when I grow up." The people working to make these vehicles a reality are almost all directly motivated by a desire to go to space themselves -- but I think even more so, they are working to make sure that their children and their grandchildren are never told that they can't fulfill that dream.

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Patrick Michels
Contact: Patrick Michels