GOLDEN, Colo. — Armadillo Aerospace and Rocket Racing Inc. are joining forces to fly paying customers to the edge of space as soon as 2010.

Under the joint venture, Rockwall, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace – fresh from winning the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge in October – will develop the reusable launch vehicles and provide ground support and equipment. Rocket Racing Technology Development, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rocket Racing, will provide financing and overall management of the partnership, which includes the New Mexico state government.

Armadillo Aerospace is led by John Carmack, a 3-D graphics pioneer who created the bestselling video game Doom. Since 2000, Armadillo has conducted more than a hundred flight tests involving a dozen different rocket-powered vehicles.

Plans call for a fleet of reusable vertical take-off and landing vehicles that will operate from
New Mexico
‘s still-to-be-built Spaceport

The partnership was announced Oct. 24 by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson during the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge at the
Las Cruces
New Mexico

“This announcement is another step … another recognition that Spaceport America is working … is positive,”
said, “where the wild west meets space.”

Asked if he’s ready to strap into the Armadillo Aerospace-supplied vessel,
told Space News, “I’m going to be the third or fourth … but I expect to go up. I’m fully supportive of the effort, but I think the experts should go first.”

360-Degree View

Armadillo and Rocket Racing envision a two-person vehicle in which the craft’s clear-bubble cabin affords passengers a 360-degree view during ascent and return to Earth.

Rocket Racing said in a statement that the plan is to fabricate and fly an initial human-carrying vehicle prototype in 2009, followed by the first piloted flights in 2010.

Rocket Racing also said it is looking beyond suborbital space tourism, eyeing suborbital vehicles that can be loaded with microgravity experiments, as well as perform astrophysics and reconnaissance observations, including high-altitude scientific and meteorological measurement duties.

At the moment, plans call for a two-passenger suborbital ship powered by a modular cluster of eight rockets, said Granger Whitelaw, chief executive officer of Rocket Racing.

The suborbital experience will give travelers some four-and-a-half to five-minutes of microgravity, Whitelaw said, with passengers provided a 360-degree view going up and coming down, “not a back of the bus porthole view.”

Whitelaw said tickets will cost $100,000 or less.

said Spaceport
is gearing up to support launch operations for the leading commercial space companies.

Initial cost estimates to build the spaceport are some $198 million. The building site for the inland spaceport is located within 70 square kilometers of state-owned land about
72 kilometers
north of
Las Cruces

Steve Landeene, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority said Armadillo and Rocket Racing’s plans promise to help accelerate Spaceport
‘s position as a leader in space launch. “The vertical flights will provide excellent activity while the horizontal infrastructure is being constructed,” he told Space News.

While voters in
New Mexico
rejected a gross receipts tax increase Nov. 4 to help pay for the spaceport, voters in neighboring Sierra and Doa Ana counties already have approved such a tax.

said that 97 percent of Spaceport
funding is in place with the focus now on delivering legislated requirements by year’s end, such as obtaining the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Record of Decision on the spaceport’s environmental impact statement, an FAA site operating license and a 20-year lease with Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic, a
company bankrolled by lofty-minded British billionaire Richard Branson, is slated to operate its suborbital spaceline from Spaceport
. The company will be using the WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo system for runway departure and air-launch of their six-passenger, two-pilot craft on suborbital jaunts. Flight hardware is under construction at Scaled Composites in Mojave,
The price tag per passenger is $200,000.

Early testing

Armadillo’s action plan for suborbital rocketry was bolstered Oct. 24 by winning $350,000 in Level One prize money at the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge – part of a $2-million purse sponsored by NASA’s Centennial Challenges program.

Armadillo won the money by successfully flying their liquid-oxygen, ethanol- and helium-powered craft on back-to-back hops meant to simulate lunar liftoffs and landings.

However, Armadillo’s attempt at snaring more money the next day on a more difficult Level Two challenge was thwarted when their craft failed shortly after ignition, falling onto its side. A burn through on the engine caused the craft to shut down as it was throttling up. The vehicle suffered other damage as well, with Armadillo calling it a day without further flights.

told Space News in a Nov. 12 e-mail that he and his team have identified and corrected the problem that short-circuited their Level Two attempt.

“The small relays in our watchdog computer cutoff system could be disturbed by vibrations of the engine throttling up on the ground. We have replaced them with much heavier-duty relays,” Carmack said.

That fix means Armadillo Aerospace is in position to move forward on several projects, including their passenger-carrying suborbital vehicle.

said early testing of suborbital vehicle hardware will take place at the 1,100-hectare Oklahoma Spaceport run by the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority in Burns Flat,

“We will be able to conduct flights up to
5,000 feet
[1,524 meters] or so at the Oklahoma Spaceport facility,” Carmack noted. “We will still be able to learn a lot in that range by light loading vehicles and accelerating them hard to our maximum effective airspeed. High altitude flights will have to be at Spaceport

As for the timing of test objectives ahead, Carmack said he cannot publicly talk about milestones at this point. “But we are building in a lot of cushion. We expect to have failures and learn unexpected things.”