Home / FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Armadillo Aerospace FAQ If you have questions you don't see answered here, you can ask them at The Space Fellowship in Armadillo's official forum or search the previous posts to see if they've been asked and answered before.

Why did you choose the name Armadillo Aerospace?
We were looking for a name that captured the local flavor of the team's location (Texas), and had a whimsical nature that, at least initially, suggested we didn't take ourselves too seriously.

Isn't John Carmack a computer game programmer? What brought about his desire to start an aerospace company?
John is a founding member and Technical Director of id Software, the company noted for the DOOM and Quake computer games. Through coworkers and web sites devoted to technology and such, he found out about the CATS Prize that ran from November of 1997 to November 8, 2000. The CATS Prize was meant to foster Cheap Access To Space, and offered $250,000 to the first private team who could launch a 2 kilogram payload to 200 kilometers. John felt fostering private aerospace was a worthy goal, so he interviewed several teams to see about investing in their efforts. The CATS prize came and went without a winner, but through his indirect involvement, John realized that private efforts to reach space were both something he was very interested in and ultimately something he wanted to try himself.

In 2000 John formed Armadillo Aerospace and contacted the Dallas Area Rocket Society to see if there were any members interested in joining him in this new endeavor, developing exotic rocketry beyond the high-powered rockets DARS members normally flew. Through DARS, he met with Russ Blink, Phil Eaton, and Neil Milburn. Realizing they all had similar dreams and goals with regard to space access, they began meeting twice a week to start building computer-controlled, hydrogen peroxide-powered rockets (Armadillo would later abandon hydrogen peroxide propellant when supply issues became an unsolvable problem).

Are you hiring? Or, Can I volunteer?
At the moment, Armadillo is not hiring for any positions. Armadillo Aerospace feels the current team size is just about optimal for the work we're doing now. However, if you have some specialized experience you feel would benefit the team, you are local to the Dallas area, and you are passionate enough about space to work for low pay, you are welcome to contact John at johnc@idsoftware.com. Please be aware, however, that John cannot answer all inquiries.

Can I invest?
Armadillo Aerospace is fully self-funded and is not seeking investors. However, if you have millions of dollars you'd like to spend on civilian access to space, we'll listen.

Any other ways I can help?
The money we make off of our merchandise sales funds our shop snacks, and we like shop snacks. Also, buying id Software's games helps indirectly fund our efforts.

Are you going to go “full-time”?
Recent contract work has both allowed and demanded we bring most of the team members on board as full-time, paid employees. As business and work continues to grow, more will inevitably be brought on board full-time as well.

Can I visit your shop/see a launch?
In the past it's been possible to watch Armadillos in action at X Prize Cup events. Unfortunately, there are no upcoming events planned at this time involving Armadillo Aerospace that will be open to the public. The Rocket Racing League will probably be flying with Armadillo propulsion systems at public air shows in the future, as they have already, but we have no information at this time as to when or where.

I have an idea about how you can improve your technology – or – I have some advice for you. Who can I talk to about it?
Armadillo gets a steady stream of information about perpetual motion, anti-gravity, desktop fusion and other such schemes. If you have such an idea, see about getting it published and peer-reviewed, or at least be able to demonstrate a working example. We aren't interested in your paper study and we don't wish to invest in it. However, if you have real-world experience that you think might help us directly with our current technology, we'll listen. Technical comments from people with relevant real world experience are always welcome.

How long until I can buy a ride? How much will it cost?
We still have much work to do until you'll be able to catch a ride on our hardware to space, but Space Adventures, who we have entered an exclusive agreement with to provide commercial spaceflight experiences, expects to charge $102,000 for a suborbital flight on our hardware.

What are your goals?
Our immediate goal is to begin serious campaigning of our modular rocket system, which will work in conjunction with several contracts we have pending with various space-related agencies, and will bring us higher and faster than ever before. Eventually, we wish to provide a platform for civilian flights to suborbital space, and ultimately, we plan to reach orbit.

How is your approach to building rockets different from government space programs?
We approach rocket design much like software design – build many different incremental designs that we can test constantly and work out all the kinks as we go. Build, test, fix, then test again.

Following a typical Big Aerospace design approach would be like programming a software design for months or years without ever being able to compile and test your code. And then getting only one chance to let 'er rip, crossing your fingers and hoping all your mountains of paper studies will pay off and nothing will go wrong the first time out. NASA has shown that such an approach can work, but at such great cost and time that a great many of its projects never move beyond the paper study stage. We'd rather actually fly everything we design, and see in the real world what works and what doesn't, so we can build off that first-hand experience on future designs.

Didn't NASA perfect all this stuff decades ago? Aren't you just re-inventing the wheel? Do you draw from old aerospace documents and research?
NASA did a great job getting people into space in a relatively short amount of time in the 60s, but the progress since then has been alarmingly slow. And, nearly everything NASA achieved in the 60s and since then has only been possible with HUGE price tags.

Armadillo Aerospace wants to show that the same types of things can be accomplished at a fraction of the cost. So while it may seem that the technology is similar, it is actually being accomplished for two orders of magnitude (or more) less money than NASA ever could. That means that what can be accomplished with that technology will not only be able to become more common, but rides for people like you and me will actually be within our reach.

Nevertheless, we do read as much pertinent information we can get our hands on from the history of aerospace. Even though we are “starting from scratch” to try to do it cheaply, there are volumes of information that John and team members read that gets integrated into their engineering world view. They find that the NASA SP reports from the 60's and 70's are fantastic resources. Modern NASA reports, not so much so.

Why don't you buy commercially-available engines, such as the LR-101, rather than spending so much time trying to develop your own?
We specifically want a deep throttling, regeneratively cooled, alcohol burning motor. This combination just isn't available.

Atlas vernier engines are convenient around 1000 lbf, but they are designed for higher tank pressures than we want to run, they burn kerosene, they aren't expected to throttle, and Armadillo has never been a fan of buying anything critical as surplus, because then you are at the mercy of a supply that could dry up at any time.

The commercially available engines we've looked into that are not surplus cost enough to sustain years of our engine development.

We also feel there is a lot of benefit from the deep experience base gained by developing our own.

When are you going to be flying to higher altitudes?
We have recently been reaching altitudes of greater than 10,000 ft. testing the Rocket Racers®, but that is with lift provided by the aircraft's wings in addition to the rocket engine. We are concurrently working toward suborbital flights with our VTVL systems, and have flow them up to 4000 feet so far during incremental testing. We hope to be flying to altitudes of 100,000 feet and higher within a year.

With your current modular design, won't drag on a high number of modules be a deal-breaker? What about adding a fairing?
Our current plan of record is to fly the modular clusters at subsonic speeds through the thickest parts of the atmosphere. This means that typical concerns about transonic conditions and high drag are not as relevant. We will pay a price in efficiency, since delaying higher speeds until much higher altitudes expends more energy, but we feel we will more than make up for that in the simplicity and flexibility of the modular design. As such, we feel a fairing may not be necessary, only adding unnecessary weight. But higher altitude testing will prove this out.

Won't the modular approach be more prone to mishaps since there will be more individual systems within which things can go wrong?
Very simple modules should have much higher reliability than conventional, complex rockets. Even without that:

If each module only had 99% reliability, an eight module system would have an 7.7% chance of having a failure of some kind (1.0 - 0.99^ 8 ). However, the configurations we will likely use would require two modules in opposite "banks" to both fail to bring the vehicle down, which would only have a (1.0 - 0.99^4) * (1.0 - 0.99^4) = 0.00155 chance of happening. We expect the real number to be much smaller than that, because we expect we will have better than 99% reliability per module. Each bank should have its own guidance electronics as well, so that will also be redundant.

Do you have plans for orbital launches?
Yes, our current modular design should directly scale to orbit-capable clusters. There is plenty to do before trying to launch something into orbit, but our first attempt will probably be lobbing a micro satellite that we do not intend to recover into orbit that will simply serve to say, “here I am.”

Do you intend to eventually make your orbital system fully reusable?
Eventually, yes. Once we've worked out the issues of getting something to orbit at all, we'd start pushing to develop a fully reusable, cost-effective orbital launcher.

Why are you so focused on Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing? Aren't spaceplanes the future?
Spaceplanes certainly can be cool-looking, and Armadillo has been having a lot of success integrating its engines into the Rocket Racing League's Rocket Racers®, but Armadillo feels they are not the best path to space, especially orbital space, which is where we want to be eventually. Wings simply add too much weight to a rocket that don't do a thing through most of the flight. And there are plenty of other ways to land safely than forcing your rocket to have so much dead weight and drag for so much of its flight.

What's with your landing gear? Why don't you use something more like NASA's Apollo program lunar lander had?
Since Armadillo Aerospace's primary goal is affordable space access, simplicity is a major driver in most of our engineering decisions. We feel it is better solve to a problem using an approach that is simple and cheap, even if inelegant, than over-engineering it, or applying pre-conceived notions to how something should look. Yes, we have had landing failures in our development program, but building, testing, fixing then testing again is practically our motto.

What about parachutes?
First of all, people generally have an unrealistic view of parachutes as bringing something drifting softly to the ground like a little Estes rocket. The reality is that heavy items dropped with parachutes, even when they are designed for it, hit the ground like they have been pushed off a roof. Military air drops of vehicles use disposable crushable pads under them for the terminal shock absorption.

Our current vehicles are over 2000 pounds at liftoff, and they are only getting bigger. There are suspensions that can handle heavy vehicle drops from 20'. You find them on monster trucks. They cost more, and weigh more than our entire empty vehicle. We occasionally get pointed to a couple of gyrocopter landing gear demonstrations of sophisticated shock absorbing struts, but none of them are for comparable standoff distances and masses, and the companies involved are quite proud of their work, implying that it wasn't trivial.

While not exactly a law of nature, in an immature R&D system, you can generally expect that a system that isn't used regularly won't work when it is called upon. We had a parachute on the "Bomb-Pop" rocket. We had test fired it two or three times, and we intended to recover the vehicle with it even if the flight profile was nominal (it wasn't a powered vertical lander). When we lost control on liftoff, we tried to fire the parachute. It didn't work. We never figured out why. It probably wouldn't have saved the vehicle anyway, because the apogee altitude was too low.

We have had exactly one vehicle crash in seven years that could have been saved by a parachute, the 48 inch diameter peroxide vehicle that went to 600' altitude because of a noisy accelerometer signal messing with the target velocity seeking routine. That would have been nice to save. To our knowledge, not a single VTVL vehicle has been saved by a parachute. Several have had them, and crashed in various ways, but parachutes haven't helped.

Just about any crazy scheme can be made to work with enough time and money, but "deployable" is a bad word in my dictionary. Airbags? Under a recently (and likely still) flaming rocket engine? In general, "It can't hurt" is just wrong. Everything has a cost, and little costs mount up over time, especially when they have any impact on operability.

We consider parachute and other recovery systems for every single vehicle design. The benefits get weighed against the work and ongoing costs, and they just don't usually make the cut. We are probably going to have a drogue chute on the modules when we start flying them fast so we can re-stabilize after a tumble, but we don't currently plan on including the necessary releases and so on to allow it to deploy a main parachute. There isn't any built-in prejudice, and we can imagine adding them in some cases, but it just doesn't make nearly as much sense as a casual glance would indicate.

Elevated tether testing makes lots of sense. Other mitigation factors, not so much.

We have an explicit plan at Armadillo -- accepting and planning for occasional failure allows drastically faster development progress. We make up for it with inexpensive vehicles and redundancy. Currently redundancy in backup vehicles, eventually redundant modules in single vehicles. Building new vehicles is how you evolve, and we would be doing it whether we crashed or not.

Why don't you use pumps to pressurize your propellants for more efficiency instead of blowdown?
Again, simplicity and cost are our major drivers. While our blowdown approach is less efficient than pumps, we feel pumps would add an unacceptable level of complexity and potential cost (in both development and maintenance) to our systems. Our philosophy is that it is far better to go with a simpler design, at the cost of efficiency, if it means we'll fly more and be able to keep costs down.

Why do your “lunar landers” use GPS as part of the guidance package when GPS isn't available on the moon?
Nobody is considering these vehicles actual prototypes for a "real" lunar lander; they are specifically built to compete in the Lunar Lander Challenge, which is meant to spur progress in private companies seeking low-cost alternatives to space access. Yes, you can't use GPS at all on the moon (well, you can a tiny bit, but not as it is used here on earth), so for guidance on the moon, an Armadillo lander would need to use a combination of star/sun/earth trackers for orientation, and dead reckoning IMUs and laser/radar altimeters for positioning.

Do you plan to compete in the recently-announced Google Lunar X Prize?
We've discussed it and have considered approaches for it, but we have no plans to enter at this time. We have a lot of other things to think about at the moment, and getting to the moon is further down that list.

I'd like to use some of the photos or videos on your web site in my project. Can I do that?
The short answer is yes, with restrictions. Please see the licensing page for usage information.


© 2001-2011 Armadillo Aerospace, LLC. All rights reserved.