As expected, Space Adventures announced Thursday at the International Space Development Conference, (ISDC) in Chicago its partnership with Armadillo Aerospace to provide suborbital space tourism flights. Armadillo will develop a vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) suborbital vehicle carrying people to at least 100 kilometers altitude, with Space Adventures selling the seats, starting with its existing customer list of about 200 people, including several former astronauts.
The presentation, featuring Space Adventures president and CEO Eric Anderson and Armadillo Aerospace founder John Carmack, offered few technical or schedule details about their plans. There is no finalized vehicle design yet: a video shown in the presentation showed a number of differenent Armadillo concepts, from a cone sitting atop four propellant tanks with a central engine to the “fishbowl” concept Armadillo showed off in 2008 for the short-lived suborbital joint venture between Armadillo and the Rocket Racing League. Carmack also offered no timetable for the beginning of tourist flights, although he did note the company hoped to be flying unmanned scientific payloads to altitudes of approximately 100,000 feet (30 kilometers) in the next year, and to 100 kilometers altitude in the following year.
Instead, the presentation was examining in more general terms the companies’ plans, including why Space Adventures, who has made a name for itself for nearly a decade by arranging flights to the International Space Station, would get into the suborbital spaceflight business. Anderson noted that when Space Adventures was founded in the late 1990s, its focus was on suborbital spaceflight at a time when many vehicle developers were saying “we’re only two years away,” he recalled. “We didn’t have any idea at the time that we would be fortunate enough to be able to launch private citizens to orbit before suborbital flights,” he continued. Later, Space Adventures considered working with a Russian company to develop a suborbital vehicle called Explorer, which he said they abandoned because “frankly, it got too expensive.” As Armadillo made progress with their vehicles, “I was just so impressed” with their efforts he was convinced they were the company that could really reduce the cost of space access.
While neither Armadillo nor Carmack discussed the cost of the project, they did confirm that Space Adventures was providing Armadillo with funding to support it, at least in part. Alluding to past partnership announcements that failed to pan out, Carmack said, “One of my new rules on this is that I’m not going to get up and talk about something unless a check has cleared.” And since Carmack was getting up and talking about this, he confirmed, “Space Adventures has actually paid Armadillo Aerospace to begin developing a new suborbital vehicle.” Carmack said later that under their agreement, Space Adventures will pay Armadillo unspecified amounts upon achiveing certain milestones in the vehicle development effort. “The amount of money that has changed hands here is not trivial, but it’s not enough to fund the vehicles,” he said. “It isn’t enough money to pay for these vehicles, it’s enough money to make me think about not pursuing other contracts.” He added that he expected to kick in more of his own money into the venture, but also looked to getting funding from NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program for flying scientific payloads.
The timelines that they did reveal suggest that Space Adventures and Armadillo will not be the first to market for commercial suborbital space tourism, given the progress being made by companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace. Carmack addressed this as well, in the process perhaps raising the hackles of some of his competitors in the audience at the ISDC. “It’s a fool who doesn’t think he has any competition,” Carmack said. On Virgin, he said, “I think they have explicitly not chosen the most cost effective solution on this. I don’t think they will be able to compete on price, eventually, but some people will prefer their experience.”
Carmack was critical of XCOR from a funding standpoint. “I believe that, if fully funded, they could build a vehicle that could fly, that could service passengers,” he said. “I do not believe they are fully funded.” He then issued something of a warning to other companies, after earlier noting that Armadillo planned to accelerate its development plans and hire more people. “I think one of the best things about having the other companies in the industry is that it’s developed some very skilled and talened people, and we’re probably going to steal some of them.”
Carmack also said he felt Armadillo’s VTVL vehicle was a superior approach to a winged vehicled like SpaceShipTwo or Lynx. A ballistic reentry, he said, is better than a winged reentry, noting one fatality from the X-15 program. Launching a winged vehicle, he added, is “a lot harder than making a ballistic vehicle fly right up.” Thus, for greatly reducing the cost of suborbital spaceflight, “the powered [vertical] landing has significant benefits.” After the presentation I talked briefly with XCOR COO Andrew Nelson, who said, “People will want a lot of different experiences. We believe that most people will want something involving wings.”