Armadillo’s modular approach

John Carmack gave an extensive status report on Armadillo Aerospace at the Space Access conference yesterday. Armadillo’s near-term emphasis is on preparing for the 2007 Lunar Lander Challenge, having made some upgrades to Pixel and Texel, such as stronger landing legs. They are also working on their modular vehicle approach: putting together progressively more capable vehicles by adding identical modules, which consist of a pair of LOX/ethanol propellant tanks mounted on top of an engine. A four-module vehicle would be just powerful enough to send a small payload to 100 kilometers; such flights could take place by the end of this year or early next year from Spaceport America in Armadillo’s best-case scenario. A nine-module version, with a capsule on top, could be used for commercial human suborbital flights; Armadillo is looking to building a barebones capsule but also is in talks with an unspecified company to develop it. Farther down the road Carmack envisions an orbital vehicle with two or three stages and as many as 64 modules, something that has raised more than a few eyebrows among industry insiders. “When I talk about these larger-scale operations to most of the people in the industry, I always get ‘that look’, whenever I talk about 64 engines or 64 modules,” he said. “It’s an initial knee-jerk reaction, but when you come down to it, I don’t think it’s justified.”

Along with the technical plans, Carmack also addressed the business side. Armadillo has always been difficult to classify: they have significant facilities and equipment, but rely almost exclusively on volunteer labor, and have been funded mostly out of Carmack’s checkbook, to the tune of $3 million to date (with a burn rate of about $500,000/year). Is Armadillo a fledgling business or just an expensive hobby? Carmack did say that they have been looking at a number of commercial opportunities, and while not many of them “have turned into real money” they are seeing an increase in outside revenue over the last few years. With Carmack saying that he can continue to support Armadillo’s efforts out of his pocket “until the bottom drops out of the videogame market”, he doesn’t seem to be in a big rush to close deals, and said that even with a huge infusion of money it would be difficult for them to go more than two or three times faster than their current pace. “When the capability is demonstrated, the business case is just going to close itself.”

“We’re absolutely going to be carrying people to space, whether it’s next year or the year after,” he said. He admitted that he has made similar statements in the past, but this time “we are making steady, incremental progress towards that.”

For some more details about Carmack’s talk, check out postings at HobbySpace and Transterrestrial Musings, including some additional commentary from Sam Dinkin.

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