Armadillo Aerospace, the suborbital vehicle company founded and funded by video game designer John Carmack, has kept a low profile in recent months. The company did not participate in the recent Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Colorado, an event where Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace all had special sessions. The last news from the company was in late February, when it reported on the launch of its STIG-B rocket at Spaceport America in early January. That launch failed when the main parachute snagged and didn’t deploy properly, causing the rocket to hit the ground at high speed.
There is a good reason for that silence over the last five months: the company is, for the time being, effectively out of money. “The situation that we’re at right now is that things are turned down to sort of a hibernation mode,” Carmack said Thursday evening at the QuakeCon gaming conference in Dallas. “I did spin down most of the development work for this year” after the crash, he said.
The current situation was the result of a decision Carmack said he made two years ago to stop accepting contract work and push for the development of a suborbital reusable sounding rocket. “We thought we were within striking distance of the suborbital cargo markets, the NASA CRuSR payloads,” he said, a reference to NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research program (now part of the Flight Opportunities program) that funded launches of vehicles like Armadillo’s STIG rockets for carrying various experimental payloads. The contract work Armadillo had was generating an operating profit, Carmack said, but “I reached the conclusion that we just weren’t going to get where we needed to go with that.”
Carmack said he instead funded the company out of his own pocket, for “something north of a million dollars a year.” He said he hoped this focus solely on vehicle development, making use of many technologies already developed, would allow the company to make faster progress on its STIG family of suborbital rockets, but instead the opposite happened: things slowed down. “What happened was disappointing,” he said. “What should have been faster—repackaging of everything—turned out slower.”
Carmack offered several possible reasons why work on the STIG vehicles didn’t go as fast as he’d hoped. One was that he was not involved in the company on a day-to-day basis during this time, focused instead on software development. “Me not being there left me in a position of not wanting to second-guess the boots on the ground,” he said. “I left my hands off the wheel.”
A second reason was what he called “creeping professionalism” at the company as its volunteers became full-time employees and started working with NASA. Rather that turning out hardware quickly to try something, he said, Armadillo started doing more reviews and additional planning: comforting to customers like NASA, but not nearly as speedy as before. When Armadillo was all-volunteer, “everyone was focused on getting the work done” when they were in the shop only a couple days a week, he recalled. That efficiency, he believed, wasn’t maintained at that same level of urgency when people started working full-time at Armadillo.
Carmack said another mistake the company made was not to go into series production, making several versions of the STIG rockets simultaneously so that the loss of a single vehicle would not be as traumatic. “That was our critical mistake in the last few years, because we should have been able to put more of these together,” he said. Instead, he said there was a “creeping performance” issue, where the company made increasing use of carbon-fiber and heat-treated aluminum rather than simply using thicker aluminium. “This is chapter and verse some of the errors that NASA has done over the years, and it’s heartbreaking for me to see my own team following some of these problems,” he said.
With Armadillo currently in hibernation, Carmack said he is actively looking for outside investors to restart work on the company’s rockets. “If we don’t wind up landing an investor, it’ll probably stay in hibernation until there’s another liquidity event where I’m comfortable throwing another million dollars a year into things,” he said. Funding Armadillo, he said, has “always been a negotiation with my wife,” he said, setting aside some “crazy money” to spend on it. “But I’ve basically expended my crazy money on Armadillo, so I don’t expect to see any rockets in the real near future unless we do wind up raising some investment money on it.”