Armadillo Out of Money, in “Hibernation”

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John_Carmack

John Carmack

As had been rumored for several months now, Armadillo Aerospace is currently inactive. Jeff Foust at NewSpace Journal reports that company is essentially out of money and is currently in “hibernation.”

“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.”

…With Armadillo currently in hibernation, Carmack said he is actively looking for outside investors to restart work on the company’s rockets.

A look at Armadillo’s launch history as provided by the FAA shows Armadillo’s failure to follow-up on a series of successful flights from 2006 to 2008 2009 that saw the company win the first stage of the Northrup Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

Armadillo Aerospace Launch History

# Date Vehicle Site Objective Result
19 Jan 05, 2013 STIG-B III Spaceport America Launch Scientific Payload
Failure
18 Nov 04, 2012 STIG-B Spaceport America Launch Scientific Payload
Success
17 Oct 06, 2012 STIG-B Spaceport America Launch Scientific Payload
Success
16 Oct 25, 2008 QUAD (Pixel) Las Cruces Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge Flight Test
15 Oct 24, 2008 MOD-1 Las Cruces Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge Flight Test
14 Oct 24, 2008 MOD-1 Las Cruces Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge Flight Test
13 Oct 24, 2008 MOD-1 Las Cruces Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge Flight Test
12 Oct 28, 2007 MOD-1 Holloman X Prize Cup Competition Flight Test
11 Oct 28, 2007 MOD-1 Holloman X Prize Cup Competition Flight Test
10 Oct 27, 2007 MOD-1 Holloman X Prize Cup Competition Flight Test
09 Oct 27, 2007 MOD-1 Holloman X Prize Cup Competition Flight Test
08 Oct 20, 2007 MOD-1 Oklahoma Flight Test Flight Test
07 Jun 02, 2007 QUAD (Pixel) Oklahoma Flight Test Flight Test
06 Jun 02, 2007 QUAD (Pixel) Oklahoma Flight Test Flight Test
05 Oct 21, 2006 QUAD (Pixel) Las Cruces X Prize Cup Competition Flight Test
04 Oct 21, 2006 QUAD (Pixel) Las Cruces X Prize Cup Competition Flight Test
03 Oct 21, 2006 QUAD (Pixel) Las Cruces X Prize Cup Competition Flight Test
02 Oct 20, 2006 QUAD (Pixel) Las Cruces X Prize Cup Competition Flight Test
01 Oct 19, 2006 QUAD (Pixel) Las Cruces X Prize Cup Competition Flight Test

Four years passed after the last Lunar Lander Challenge flight before the company began flying again in late 2012 with its new STIG-B launch vehicle. The most recent flight in January ended in failure after the parachute failed.

Editor’s Note: The above list is actually incomplete and does not include Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge flights in 2009. It also doesn’t include a number of flights that took place between 2008 and 2012 that were not covered by FAA permits and licenses but rather amateur waivers rules, as Jonathan Goff points out in his comments below. So, the company was quite busy over the past five years.

I regret the error and did not wish to mislead anyone concerning the company. There was a combination of an incomplete FAA database and my own ignorance of launch rules. This is something I should have checked more thoroughly before publishing.

  • Jonathan A. Goff

    Doug,

    This misses a lot of MOD flights that happened between 2008 and 2012. I’m guessing those were just small enough to be under the amateur waiver instead of the experimental permit/launch license regime? Cause their Level 2 prize winning flights happened in 2009, and aren’t there. Their launch tempo in 2009 and 2010 was actually quite high. They ran into snags with their MODs trying to take them supersonic, and crashed several of them in the 2010ish timeframe, and then switched to the STIG vehicles.

    So just looking at this table may provide a misleading story. Armadillo’s flight rate only really started slowing down this past year, right before they ran out of money.

    ~Jon

  • Aerospike

    Seems like the STIG-A flights are also missing from the list?

  • mlaboy

    I wish Armadillo and John the best of Luck, They were one of the very first to show their development online and I’ve enjoyed following their progress. They were pioneers in the “test a little, fly a little” philosophy that larger firms are now adopting. During the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge I felt they were denied the first place prize when they unfairly gave Masten a second chance. John if you ever do a “Kickstarter campaign”, I’d be happy to contribute.

  • Andy

    This may be a naive question, but why would they go into hibernation instead of seeking out contract work? Matter of principle?

  • Nickolai

    I think the point is that even though they were making money on contract work, it didn’t leave them with enough time to work on what they really wanted to do, so going back to contract work would just put them in the same position.

  • Jonathan A. Goff

    Andy,
    It’s not always easy to turn the contracting spigot back on once you’ve turned it off. JSC is now building their own Morpheus landers. Rocket racing league seems to have gone quiet again. Gov’t contracts take a long time to spool-up. Maybe they could get Space Adventures interested again, but I wonder how likely that is with them in hibernation mode. I do hope they find a way out of this situation though.

    ~Jon

  • Douglas Messier

    Thanks, Jon.

    My bad. Looks like a combination of a somewhat incomplete FAA database, my misunderstanding of the amateur waiver rule, and my failure to double check facts before publishing. Definitely not my best work.

  • Jonathan A. Goff

    Doug,
    No worries, that’s what comment threads are for. It’s still a sad story, just a slightly more nuanced one.

    ~Jon

  • Douglas Messier

    Thank you for that.

    This worries me a bit. You expect some suborbital companies not to make it. But, the situation seems more serious than most people probably realize.

    You’ve got Armadillo in hibernation. Masten is operating at low altitudes and needs $5 million it doesn’t have to build Xogdor. They’re significantly behind schedule on their test flights. And earlier this year, the Mojave Air and Space Port spent $25,000 for a promotional video to be taken from one of the Masten flights.That wiped out $16,000 in back rent on a couple of the test sites.

    Meanwhile, the buzz out here in Mojave is that Scaled and Virgin still haven’t licked the propulsion problems that have dogged them on SpaceShipTwo for the last eight years. I really hope that’s not true, because you want to see them succeed for their own benefit and the good of the wider industry.

    I’m getting the sense that this whole reusable suborbital industry is largely down to XCOR and a handful of other smaller providers like UP Aerospace.

  • Jonathan A. Goff

    Doug,
    I’d agree that the situation is not as rosy as many think. Masten has always been in a situation with not enough money to move at the pace that they’d like to. They’re at least hanging in there, making progress little by little. But the fact that they’re admitting Xogdor will likely take $5M to get into operations is actually a good sign in my opinion–it shows a more realistic estimate of how much it’ll cost them to get there.

    I’ve heard that Scaled/Virgin/SNC did discover some issues shortly after the first hot-fire test, but that they’re close to having those resolved and getting back into testing. But agreed that SS2 has taken far longer than anyone expected. Unlike Masten, they’ve had plenty of money, just haven’t been able to work through the propulsion development very smoothly.

    I still think that VG has a good probability of beating XCOR to the 60km max altitude of the Lynx Mk I, but it’s true this industry has had far worse teething pains than any of us would’ve expected 10 years ago.

    ~Jon

  • Chris Courtois

    Keep in mind Doug, participating in far smaller scale test projects of my own, I can vouch for the fact that Aerospace experimental projects will ALWAYS be underfunded, behind schedule and face a plethora of problems at each step. Even the best most effective team will face one nightmare at every development step.

    Heck, I just wanted to develop a plain rocket-glider with an FPV system off my own money. I expected it to take two summers with about a dozen tests. I started this in 2011 and here we are in 2013, twelve flights in and I’m *almost* done, but still need another half dozen test flights. Not to mention two basic rocketry mistakes along the way cost me one entire aircraft and another partial rebuild… the frustrating thing being the failures weren’t even related to anything unproven that I was trying – instead it was one parachute tangle and a badly set ejection delay… already being a difficult pace to follow, the mere failure sets you back so hard (especially when a routine, proven component causes it) you need to repeat almost a third of your project after you’re back afoot, partly to prove you fixed the problem that caused the failure and partly to repeat the test you initially intended to perform.

    Good thing for me is this project is cheap in relation. A normal citizen can fund it with his pocket money, something that can’t be said for Armadillo, Masten and even more: Scaled.

    I’m nowhere near their level, but I can feel their pain first hand as proportionally speaking I seem to be at the same pace as these guys. If my project were any larger and more expensive, it probably would come with five times MORE problems, not less. So really this absolutely looks like the going-rate pace. Who comes out in one piece? The ones who are REALLY freaking good, borderlining the perfect.

  • DaIllogicalVulkan

    Even though we knew this would happen to someone, it still raises several questions/concerns what factors (besides the obvious absence of contract work) caused the money well to run dry and how does this reflect on the industry?

  • dr

    This is going to sound like a dumb comment, but its tempting to look at the providers we have today and think ~75% of them are struggling, we could be left with only one successful company.
    But that is forgetting all the sub-orbital companies that haven’t been founded yet. Once one company demonstrates that this is possible, more companies will be founded.
    We could still have a successful industry with say 10 – 20 successful participants, it might just take 200 companies to fail to get there. The key point would be that most of these companies, successful or unsuccessful, haven’t been founded yet.

  • mzungu

    If it took Scaled and 2 billionaires over 11 years to get to where they are at now, how is XCOR going to get there? I know they are living off a couple millions of the Midland tax dollars now, but that certainly is not even close to enough to finish any development work on the Lynx. In my opinion, Lynx will unfortunately doom XCOR.

  • Douglas Messier

    Scaled is where it is now because they stuck with a hybrid engine against the advice of experts who told them to go with a liquid system. They’d probably be flying today if they’d decided otherwise.

    As for your other point, someone from XCOR should really address it. Hopefully someone will.

  • mzungu

    … or the contract work may not be as lucrative, or as many as claimed, or even awarded for that matter….face saving, could be.