NASA Enlists Caddo Mills-Based Armadillo Aerospace For A Boost to Suborbital Space

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Mark Graham
Local private spaceflight player Armadillo Aerospace has always had a complex relationship with NASA. Like other NewSpace teams, they pretty much define themselves against the glacial pace and dense bureaucracy of government spaceflight -- but at least until there's a real market for space tourism and commercial cargo, NASA's going to be the sugar daddy that keeps upstarts like Armadillo flying.

NASA announced its latest cash awards on Monday, and once again, Armadillo was among the lucky winners, getting just under half of a $475,000 award to fund further development of cheap, reusable vehicles that can reach suborbital space (including three just-announced near space launches this winter from New Mexico's Spaceport America). The rest of the award went to NewSpace rival Masten Space Sysems, the Mojave, California, team that outmaneuvered Armadillo for NASA's $1 million first-place prize money in last fall's Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

Armadillo president John Carmack says the company has turned a profit in the last few years thanks to its contracts with NASA and with its pals at the Rocket Racing League. Most mentions of NASA among the Armadillo team, though, are laced with the hopeless sort of sighs you might hear from an Apple Store Genius on his smoke break. While they're glad to take NASA's money for any steps along the way to their space tourism future, they're wary of NASA engineers whose ultimate responsibilities are to agency politics, not rockets.

With the latest award from NASA's Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program -- CRuSR, if you'd rather -- I was able to reach NASA program exec LK Kubendran for a few more details on Armadillo's latest partnership with the agency. This award, he says, is the first from a new NASA office that'll be just as flexible and forward-thinking as the rest of NewSpace. That conversation follows after the jump.

Taking a break from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics annual schmoozefest and expo in Anaheim, Kubendran says that Monday's award was just the first of many as his CRuSR program grows into a frequent flyer into suborbital space for microgravity research. Come October, NASA should have more awards to spread around other NewSpace firms.

"Essentially, we'll be buying flight services," Kubendran says. His program, within NASA's new Office of the Chief Technologist, is charged with developing cheap technology to support the agency's mission. "As a secondary goal, we want to foster this industry. We would like to have this private industry thrive and provide us the platform when we need it." Just as NASA supported development of the airline industry decades ago, he says, the agency's awards and contracts will help NewSpace grow in the next few years.

While Monday's award is just an early step up the ladder to suborbital space, which starts at an altitude of 100 kilometers, the agreement comes with a handful of conditions. Within six months, Kubendran says, Armadillo needs to reach 5 kilometers, with specific requirements for weight and payload size. At the same time, these early flights will give engineers a chance to see what it takes to fit NASA payloads onto Armadillo vehicles.

While he agrees it's easy to brand NASA as a space exploration dinosaur, Kubendran says new programs like his -- designed to work hand in hand with private spaceflight startups -- will show just how quick and flexible NASA can be. "Larger programs like the shuttle or the space station, they have very elaborate programs. It sometimes looks like a huge bureaucracy, and there are good reasons for that," Kubendran says.

"In this new office, OCT, we would like to be very nimble. We would like to have a number of flights in hte next year or so," he says. "It's going to be fascinating to see how we will be able to take ideas from concepts to flight."
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