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Rocketing into commercial spaceflight

October 22, 2006|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

John Carmack, legendary designer of the "Doom" and "Quake" computer game series, is head of Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas. He is part of a new breed of space entrepreneurs trying to transform the dream of commercial spaceflight into a reality.

Carmack, 36, took time to talk last week at the NASA-backed X Prize Cup Lunar Lander Challenges at Las Cruces International Airport in New Mexico. He has built two experimental moon landers, named Pixel and Texel.

The X Prize is a series of space technology competitions. The most famous was won in 2004 by aircraft designer Burt Rutan and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, whose SpaceShipOne became the first commercially built manned craft to reach space.

How did you get involved in rocketry?

It was almost a random series of events. As a kid, I flew model rockets and read science fiction. But I was never a space nut. I diverted into computers. I knew about the X Prize, and I thought that's neat.... I knew I had a lot to learn as a computer geek. So I spent a year reading all the reference materials I could get my hands on.

After a year, I decided, 'I now have a personal opinion about where to go.' That was about six years ago. That's when I pulled together the Armadillo crew.

Are you backing away from video games? There has been talk of you leaving the field.

I'm not as obsessive on computers as I used to be. I used to work 80 hours a week on software. Now I'm married and have a child, so I put in about 40 hours on software and 30 on rockets.

The great thing about the X Prizes is they are ... along the route we would need to travel anyway. They give you a concrete goal before you enter commercial service.

What was your plan?

We started using concentrated hydrogen peroxide fuel. The fact that we were able to get a vehicle in the air was amazing. But the company we were buying from went out of business.

The only other supplier didn't want to deal with small commercial companies. They were totally gun-shy. They had lost a lawsuit, which was amazing. That's like suing Exxon for a car accident. Anyway, that set us back a couple of years.

Two years ago, we switched to LOX [liquid oxygen]. It has some advantages, but it's three times as complicated. [Pixel and Texel] are our third and fourth vehicles. Both vehicles were scratched out on a hotel notepad.

How much have you spent so far on your rocket business?

About $2.5 million over the past six years. Nvidia [the Santa Clara-based maker of computer-graphics chips] is sponsoring us, which helps.

What is your personal worth?

I've made $10 million. If you count stock in my company, it's maybe $60 million. Compared to the other guys [in the field of private spaceflight], I'm a low-grade millionaire.

Not bad for a dropout.

I didn't finish college, but I did graduate from high school.

What is the future of commercial spaceflight?

Things are moving fast. With SpaceShipOne we've completely removed the giggle factor.

What can your rockets do?

These are extremely powerful rockets. They have the potential to go at least as high as SpaceShipOne.

But are your designs going to be used in the next lunar lander?

None of this is really going to the moon. For one thing, we use GPS, which you can't use on the moon. The real benefits NASA gets, if we do this, is shaming their contractors. If we do that, it will more than pay for what NASA is putting in.

Do all of you in the commercial spaceflight business know one another? For instance, what do you think of Elon Musk (founder of rocket builder Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of El Segundo)?

We're all pretty well connected. Elon's great. Elon is me with 10 times as much money.

Are there any similarities between lunar landers and computer games?

I programmed the control system the way I program a video game.

How hard is spaceflight?

It's easier than the professionals think it is, but harder than the amateurs think it is.

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