Armadillo Aerospace Interview
Armadillo Aerospace (Neil Milburn) [NM]
V: What do you do as manager at Armadillo Aerospace?
NM: Well, I’ve got lots of different roles. I’m vice president of Armadillo Aerospace, and I handle most of the legal and business issues. I go out and find new business for the company, and I also do all the DONs for the government, people like the FAA, who regulate our flights, and Departement of Defense, and NASA, and other folks like that.
V: We know you recently competed in the Lunar Lander X-Prize challenge. Could you tell us about the experience, how you prepared for it, and what happened? Could you tell us how much it cost to be in the Lunar Lander challenge - if not it is O.K.
NM: When we first started Armadillo Aerospace it was just a bunch of guy getting together, kind of like a hobby. There were four of us originally, going back seven years now, and as we started building larger and larger vehicles, we decided to turn it into a company. About five years ago we formed Armadillo Aerospace. And we were making some launcher rockets for what was the original X-prize, the Ansari X-prize, which was for the first private company to put someone up into space twice in the space of two weeks in the same vehicle, so we decided we would compete for that, but we were just too slow getting things together. A guy named Burt Rutan won the competition. He’s based out in California; he’s got one of the new space companies. And then shortly thereafter, the X-Prize announced a new prize, the lunar lander challenge, and that was for the first private company that could duplicate the capabilities of a vehicle similar to the original lunar lander, the one that they put on the moon back in the 1960s and ‘70s. So the vehicles we were building at that time were ideally suited for it, so we started building vehicles specifically for that competition. We competed the first time in October of 2006 at Las Cruces in New Mexico. And then last year we competed again, this time at Holloman Air Force Base at the big show there. We didn’t win the prize money either time, but we were the only company that managed to even get vehicles that qualified for the competition. We got proper permits from the FAA to fly and at the moment no one else has a single permit.
V: Can you tell us how much it cost to be in the lunar lander challenge?
NM: We spent about a quarter of million dollars on the first vehicle and we probably spent about that much again on the second time around, about a half a million dollars total over two years. But it’s not just for the lunar lander challenge because the vehicles that we build are capable of doing lots of other things apart from just competing for the prize. Right now we just won a contract with NASA for the use of some of those vehicles. And we’ve gotten two other projects, which I can’t tell you much about because they really are top secret; they’re worth a lot of money, probably 10 times as much as we put into those vehicles.
V: Are you entering another contest?
NM: Well we’re going to be competing in another lunar lander challenge, because that comes around once every year. But I think other than that our next focus will be on our manned space program. We have several projects that we’re working on this year to make money for us and then we’ll (work) on a vehicle capable of putting somebody up into 100 kilometers, which is what’s classified as the edge of space now.
V: What problems have Armadillo overcome?
NM: Well, we’re still all part-timers, we don’t work full-time at Armadillo Aerospace. It’s all volunteers. Nobody gets paid for doing this. We just do it because it’s something we enjoy and we think we can turn it into a business in the long term. But we’ve had lots of technical problems, but that’s what we enjoy; it’s a challenge. We don’t go out and play golf and we don’t go to the gym as often as we should. But we do spend a lot of time figuring out problems, making use of our science and engineering and math skills that we all learned when we were at school and college.
V: When do you expect to put people in space?
NM: Mr. Milburn: Well, we may be able to do it in 2008 but I think with that all the other projects we’ve got going at the moment, I think it will probably be 2009. I think that’s a sensible date for us to shoot for.
V: What other things should the lunar lander be used for?
NM: We’ve got a lot of neat projects going on right now. NASA wants us to help them develop a new kind of engine that they’ll be using on the lunar landing for the return to the moon in the next ten years. And we think the easiest way for them to do that is to fly it on one of our vehicles. So we’re going to be using our lunar lander for that application. And then a lot of folks would like to do the same kind of thing. They’d like to build the real lunar lander that will go back to the moon, the one that will carry people and equipment, and they need to test a lot of technology, things that will look down and see what the surface of the moon looks like where they’re trying to land the ship. And again, the least expensive way to do that is one of our vehicles. So we’ll do a lot of testing for folks over the next couple years.
V: Thank you for letting us interview you.