Exos Seeks To Revive Armadillo Rocket Technology

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PHOENIX —Two years after Armadillo Aerospace suspended operations, a new company featuring many of the same people is planning to resume development of its reusable suborbital launch vehicles.

Exos Aerospace Systems and Technologies of Caddo Mills, Texas, is planning to begin launches of a reusable sounding rocket called the Suborbital Active Rocket with Guidance (SARGE) next year from Spaceport America in New Mexico, John Quinn, the company’s chief operating officer, said in a presentation at the Space Access ’15 conference here May 1.

SARGE is an upgraded version of Armadillo’s last vehicle, called STIG-B. It is capable of carrying a 50-kilogram payload to an altitude of 100 kilometers before returning to a guided landing by parachute for reuse.

“SARGE is simply a STIG-B with a handful of improvements based on lessons learned from two years ago,” Quinn said in a May 2 interview. Some other vehicle upgrades are also planned, including developing lighter fuel tanks.

STIG-B suborbital rocket
STIG-B suborbital rocket

Armadillo last flew STIG-B in January 2013 from Spaceport America. On that flight, the rocket’s main engine shut down early when the rocket’s guidance system lost its lock on GPS satellite signals. The rocket’s main parachute then failed to deploy properly because of an unrelated problem, causing the rocket to crash land.

In August 2013, Armadillo founder John Carmack announced that the company had gone into “hibernation” after the last STIG-B launch because of a lack of funding. Carmack, best known for his work on video games such as Doom and Quake, had been funding the company out of his own pocket for the previous two years.

“I’ve basically expended my ‘crazy money’ on Armadillo,” Carmack said in a speech at a Dallas video game conference then, “so I don’t expect to see any rockets in the real near future unless we do wind up raising some investment money.”

Shortly after that speech, Carmack announced that he was joining Oculus VR, a virtual reality technology company, as its chief technology officer. Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014, and Carmack said then that despite the financial windfall from that acquisition he had no immediate plans to get back into aerospace.

Quinn said that when Armadillo suspended operations, he saw an opportunity. “This was becoming right at the point of commercial viability, and it stopped,” he said in his conference presentation.

Quinn and David Mitchell, a Texas businessman who serves as president of Exos Aerospace, worked to revive Armadillo under the new name. Although they first announced Exos Aerospace’s formation nearly a year ago, the new company did not formally acquire Armadillo’s “mission critical” assets until early this year, according to the company’s payload users guide.

The delay in getting Exos Aerospace up and running involved issues in structuring the company, including its relationship with another company, Martin Systems and Technologies, that Quinn founded in 2013. “That slowed things down a bit,” he said.

Quinn declined to go into details about the company’s finances but said it is examining both raising money from investors and seeking strategic partnerships with other companies to fund development of SARGE. The company also started a one-month crowdfunding campaign April 27 to raise $125,000 to support SARGE design work. As of May 7, that effort had raised less than $5,000.

Exos Aerospace expects to have SARGE ready for its first test flight as soon as March 2016 from Spaceport America. The company’s plan, Quinn said, is to initially launch SARGE on a monthly schedule, then move to a weekly schedule 2017 if there is sufficient demand.

Quinn said the company does have one customer signed up so far under a nondisclosure agreement. “That is the impetus, kind of the driver, behind everything that we’re doing,” he said.

The company is seeking to win business in several markets, from scientific research and technology demonstration to education. Quinn cited in particular interest in performing biomedical research, as well as unspecified military applications of either the SARGE rocket or its technologies.

One difference Quinn hinted at between Exos and Armadillo is greater structure and rigor in the new venture. Armadillo was, for many years, run as a part-time venture with a core group of volunteers. “The Exos team is taking what John Carmack’s ethos was and proceduralizing and formalizing it,” Quinn said.

However, Quinn praised what Armadillo was able to do, and noted that Russ Blink, a former Armadillo Aerospace employee who is now chief technology officer at Exos, speaks with Carmack regularly. “John Carmack did a phenomenal job with STIG-B,” Quinn said.