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Armadillo, Romanians join $10 million space race

By Richard Stenger

Armadillo Aerospace includes computer game guru John Carmack, second from right, and test pilot Russ Blink, sitting.
Armadillo Aerospace includes computer game guru John Carmack, second from right, and test pilot Russ Blink, sitting.

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(CNN) -- After creating popular computer games and tinkering with his fleet of Ferraris, a Texas technophile has come up with another pastime, building a homemade spaceship to win a hefty prize.

John Carmack is admittedly on a quixotic quest, but the Id Software co-founder and computer coding genius has the funds to back it up.

The brains behind such legendary PC games as Doom and Quake, he has fixed his sights on the X-Prize, a $10 million bounty promised to the first amateur team that builds and flies a manned craft into space.

"Rocket science has been mythologized all out of proportion to its true difficulty," said Carmack, who transformed a band of volunteers into Mesquite, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace.

The team announced its entry into the X-Prize competition this week at the World Space Congress in Houston, Texas. So did the Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association, which hopes to build the largest rocket ever in Romania. They join about 20 squads from around the world.

The Armadillo armada has quietly conducted rocket research for almost two years. Describing themselves as "a bunch of guys, a girl and an armadillo named Widget," they meet in a modest industrial park office to build and test gadgets for a vehicle prototype.

Weeks ago outside in the parking lot, one brave member, Russ Blink, strapped himself into a metal frame, ignited peroxide fuel tanks, and blasted off the ground a few feet.

Blink was actually a backup for the designated first passenger, Carmack's wife, Anna.

"This was her rather crafty ploy to make sure that we pay a whole lot of attention to safety. It would be one thing for Russ to break a leg in an accident. It would be a completely different thing to break one of Anna's legs," Carmack joked.

On the day of the test, however, Anna was out of town and Blink courageously donned the pilot helmet and hazardous material suit.

For fun, Carmack used to modify twin turbo-charged Italian sports cars, until he had a Eureka moment.

"I thought to myself, you know, for less money that I spend on Ferraris the past decade, I think I can make my own spaceship."

Drawing of Pablo De Leon's Gauchito or Little Cowboy
Drawing of Pablo De Leon's Gauchito or Little Cowboy

In all, 21 teams from six countries -- Argentina, Canada, Romania, Russia, Britain and the United States -- are competing for the X-Prize. Some are shoestring operations led by space hobbyists. Others employ stables of well-known rocket scientists

With names like the Gauchito, the Lucky Seven and the Green Arrow, the spaceships use runways, launch pads, airplane taxis and the sea to take off and land.

For power they will rely on liquid oxygen, natural gas, kerosene engines, turbo fans, even "blast waves and pulse jets," according to the Diskcraft Company, which has designed a contraption that resembles a Frisbee.

A group of St. Louis, Missouri-based business leaders started the X-Prize in 1996 to promote private space travel.

For Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation that manages the contest, the reasons are more personal.

"My interest is simple. Since the age of 9 I wanted to fly in space," said Diamandis, who earned a slew of Ivy league medical and engineering degrees with the hopes of joining NASA.

But after realizing the, well, astronomical chances of getting into the astronaut corps and squeezing onto a space shuttle, he changed his tactics.

"I set out to try to open this up on a private basis. I'd like to go, and I think it's critical to humanity to have low-cost access to space."

Technological clock is ticking

Yet time is ticking down. This week, Diamandis announced a January 1, 2005, deadline to claim the prize, which requires a team to safely send a three-person crew 62 miles (100 kilometers) high twice within two weeks in the same vehicle.

Will anyone claim it? It's hard to say. A handful of teams have dropped out. Others have had setbacks with exploding test rockets. But most teams press on.

Pablo De Leon of Argentina plans to launch a 50 percent scale version of his Gauchito, or Little Cowboy, in early 2003.

"We're not trying to make a state-of-the-art spaceship, but a reliable and simple rocket and capsule with off-the-shelf technology," De Leon said.

"We are confident that we can make it fly. But will we win? Who knows? We are the underdogs."

Diamandis thinks a team might attempt a serious bid by December 2003, which would happen to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers.

Whether anyone wins the purse, the real payoff comes later, X-Prize backers contend, when the space tourism industry takes off.

A poll of affluent residents in the United States released this month concluded that more 15,000 would be willing passengers for suborbital flight by 2021.

That demand could be worth more than $1 billion to the space tourism industry, according to the Futron Corp. market study.

"Adventure travel is the fastest growing segment of the leisure travel business. And these X-Prize vehicles are basically the first step for future space-seeking adventure travelers," Diamandis said.

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