Last night I spoke with John Carmack, head of former X Prize contender Armadillo Aerospace. He’s also the programming genius behind best selling games by ID Software such as Doom and Quake. He and his crew will be at the X Prize Cup this October 9, flying a ten-foot tall remote controlled rocket. The machine is a demonstrator for a one-person suborbital spaceship the group is building right now. Carmack tells me he may go for an unmanned test flight before the end of this year, with subsequently higher and faster unmanned flights through next year, leading up to a manned flight by the end of 2006.
The manned ship will carry only one person. On its first manned flight will be Armadillo’s Russell Blink. Blink won’t so much fly the ship as hang on tight for the ride; the gimbal-steered craft will need machine-fast reflexes to guide it, so it’ll be mostly computer controlled. Blink will hold a dead man switch which, if released, will trigger the abort mode, a powered landing. It will also have parachutes for an emergency landing in case the rocket motor fails.
The ship will take off and land on its tail like the science fiction rockets of old. After reentry, instead of deploying parachutes or gliding down on wings, it will fire up its rocket engine again. This is the flight profile of the McDonnell Douglas DC-X, or Delta Clipper, which was a test vehicle for a planned single stage to orbit craft.
Carmack tells me he always envisioned a one-person craft, rather than the 3-place ship required to win the Ansari X Prize. Now that Scaled Composites has won the X Prize, Carmack says he’s free to revert back to his original plans. He likes much better the idea of flying lots of one-man missions, rather than fewer multi-person missions. He’ll entertain offers to pay for rides on his vehicle, and he’s planning to pursue government contracts for his company. “We’re really on the cusp of having significant capabilities here,” he told me last night.