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Millionaire working to win a space in history

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) DALLAS The tangible pieces of John Carmack's dream are scattered around an 8,000-square-foot warehouse: industrial water-purification tank, aluminum cones, compressed air cylinders, used Russian spacesuit.

All are components of the software developer's project to launch a manned rocket 62 miles up by January 2005.

What binds the pieces together are Carmack's quiet intellect and considerable bankroll.

"We mostly look at it as a two-horse race," the 33-year-old millionaire said of the international competition for the $10 million X Prize, offered by a St. Louis-based foundation.

Of the 20 or so other teams that have entered, the one Carmack considers his biggest competitor is that of Burt Rutan. Carmack admits that the aviation professional, who has been working toward private spaceflights by developing rocket-powered airplanes, has much better odds of achieving the goal first.

But that's not discouraging him or his team at Armadillo Aerospace. The X Prize is not their ultimate goal; revolutionizing the aerospace industry is.

"It's really startling how stagnant the field is," Carmack said. "Stuff that was done in the late 1950s by NASA is still being done today."

NASA has no official comment on the civilian attempts.

"It's certainly a complicated business. Sometimes we make it look easy," said Melissa Mathews, a space agency spokeswoman. "But we wish them luck and safe travels."

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The goal of the X Prize competition is to jump-start the space tourism industry.

Carmack views the software industry as a good model.

"When you look at how far software development has come in less time, it's a vibrant and healthy industry," he said.

Carmack should know. He co-founded Mesquite's id Software and helped develop the pioneering shoot-'em-up games Doom and Quake.

As a veteran of the rapid evolution of game software, Carmack easily spotted what he considers the rocket industry's Achilles' heel: "The high cost of building large-scale rockets does not lend itself to progress. Innovation only happens when you can cycle through the design process rapidly."

That philosophy improves the Carmack team's chances, said X Prize Foundation executive director Gregg Maryniak.

"The team is fairly self-contained, and that helps them with turnaround of ideas," Maryniak said.

Trying to guess who will win the X Prize is foolish, he said, but Carmack's project looks promising.

"Charles Lindbergh was probably dead last on everybody's list" when he was vying for the Orteig Prize for aviation, Maryniak said. "But he won because his design was very simple, and the Armadillo design is very simple."

Rocket science is not "magically technical," as those burdened with earthbound IQs might believe, but something that can be methodically achieved with a little know-how and a lot of trial and error, Carmack said.

Borrowing from his computer background, Carmack theorized that the best way to reinvent the rocket is to start small. His team built simple, almost miniature versions of its current, fifth-generation model before adding bigger and more complicated features.

Carmack helped finance several rocket projects before undertaking his own, swapping his hobby of turbocharging his Ferraris for building even faster machines.

To find his crew, he contacted area rocketry clubs, recruiting people such as Neil Milburn.

"I've been involved in rocketry for 10 or 12 years, but this is what I have wanted to do since I was 10 or 12 years old," Milburn said.

Each member brings his own expertise to the project. "But John's obviously the whiz kid on programming," Milburn said.

Russell Blink, the team's designated pilot, said he felt confident about the launch. He said the Armadillo creed is to have two consecutive successful test flights before the pilot climbs aboard.

"I'm certainly not going to get in the thing if there have been any kind of problems," he said. "By the time we get to that point, the thing will probably have been through at least six successful tests, and if it's going very well at that point, I'll feel very confident."

The Armadillo Aerospace crew works on its contraptions in a warehouse in northeast Dallas and does low-key testing in the parking lot.

"Since we do all of our testing either Tuesday nights or Saturday, we really haven't disturbed anybody. Nobody's complained about it," Carmack said.

"But the security guards over at Northrop Grumman have come over a couple of times wondering what's going on," he said.

More intensive flight tests are carried out on a swath of land in unincorporated Rockwall County, not far from Carmack's home. A test launch of the latest vehicle is planned for next month.

The team has made sizable advances during its three years of development, but not all tests have gone smoothly, as anyone can see from the videos posted on the group's Web site, armadilloaerospace.com. Those wanting a piece of history can also buy "armadillo droppings" - scraps from the group's junked rockets.

Carmack eschews secrecy and provides regular online updates about the team's endeavors.

"Nothing about this is one incredibly awesome idea," he said. "We use a lot of the technology and ideas that are already out there."

Carmack said the biggest obstacles to reaching the goal are paperwork and obtaining the necessary components.

An environmental impact study must be completed before the team can receive permission to launch, probably at White Sands, N.M. And vendors are reluctant to sell to anyone other than government contractors.

"It's not about progress or failures - it's the lack of support from vendors," said Carmack's wife, Katherine Anna Kang. She designed and maintains the Armadillo Aerospace Web site and oversees the team's financial matters.

Carmack estimates that he has spent nearly $1 million on rocket development and will spend a similar amount before he is through.

"One of our philosophies has always been to keep this cheap and simple, but it's amazing how much cheap and simple can cost," Milburn said. "We're one of the few teams that's doing this within the cost of the X Prize prize itself."

Kang works to keep expenditures from spiraling out of control and also makes sure the crew is taken care of, providing food and reminding members to eat.

"John has a lot of passion, a lot of drive," she said. "He just goes and does."

Kang said she admires his dedication.

"Rather than just throw lots of money in it, he's actually doing the hard work," she said. "He doesn't just hire people to do machining for him. He's there learning. He's getting his soft programmer hands cut and bruised."

Carmack says he knows his limits.

"All you can do is your best," he said, "but you can't keep someone else from doing their best."

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