For a decade now Armadillo Aerospace has been working a variety of designs for suborbital vehicles, initially in pursuit of the Ansari X PRIZE and more recently for commercial and government business: the company has a partnership with Space Adventures to develop suborbital vehicles for space tourism flights as well as a NASA Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) contract to perform a series of test flights. Armadillo has also been working on a long “tube” rocket dubbed Stig (after the character on Top Gear; it’s also an acronym for “suborbital transport inertially guided”). Despite a setback earlier this year, the company has plans for two more Stig test flights this year.
The first Stig flight, designated Stig A-1, took place in May from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unfortunately, the flight was not a success, suffering from several problems, including a roll problem and a failure of its parachute system. “It actually flew really well, it just didn’t land very well,” said Armadillo’s Neil Milburn during a Commercial Spaceflight Forum organized by SpaceUp Houston earlier this month. He showed a video of that fateful flight during his presentation at the Houston event.
Despite that setback (as well as the loss of another vehicle, a “SuperMod” called Dalek, in June), the company is moving ahead with future Stig flights. Milburn revealed at the forum that Armadillo is working on two more Stig vehicles it plans to fly later this year. Stig A-2, Milburn said, will feature a new film-cooled 5000-lbf (22,200-newton) engine. “It’s probably the best engine we’ve built to date,” he said. Armadillo hopes to launch that from Spaceport America in September. That will be followed in November by Stig B, which will have slightly better performance: while they hope to fly Stig A-2 to 80 kilometers, Stig B will be a “true 100-kilometer-capable vehicle”, he said.
The tube rockets are designed to be clustered and staged to allow for larger payloads to be carried on suborbital flights. The engine will also serve as the basis for its suborbital space tourism vehicle; Milburn said a first flight of a “prototype boilerplate vehicle” is planned for 2012. The vehicle will take off vertically with eight engines, turning off four in flight. In a shift, though, the vehicle will not perform a powered vertical landing. “We’re working on a GPS steerable recovery system with chutes” that they plan to test on the next Stig flight. He suggested the shift from a powered landing to using parachutes was intended to lower the fuel load on the vehicle.
Later, in the Q&A portion of the panel session, Milburn said Armadillo is looking, eventually, to orbital flight as well. “We intend to go orbital down the road,” he said. “We want to crawl before we walk and before we run.” He said they would be interested in launching from a coastal spaceport in Texas, like the one that been in some reports earlier this summer; “we’ve even talked about launching from the Gulf [of Mexico], if we can’t find a land base.”