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Carmack blows 'crazy money' on hibernating Armadillo

Space startup in standby after running out of cash, says Doom guy

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Doom creator turned space cowboy John Carmack has put his rocketry startup into "hibernation mode" after exhausting his personal funds, choosing a happy marriage over another cash infusion.

The founder said in a speech at Quakecon on Thursday that after plugging a little over a million dollars a year into the company for a couple of years, he has run out of money and doesn't expect to launch another rocket unless he lines up some investors.

"The rocketry thing – it's a negotiation with my wife," Carmack said. "Rocketry has always had this carved out area where 'this is John's crazy money', but I basically expended my crazy money on Armadillo so I don't expect to see any rockets in the near future unless we wind up raising some investment money."

In an expansive 10 minute answer to a question from the audience about Armadillo Aerospace, Carmack went through some of the problems the company had run into, namely "creeping performance," which is Carmack code for ballooning costs.

"We used to just make everything out of aluminum – it's not the highest-tech material – but carbon fibre started creeping into our development systems and we started to heat-treat aluminum rather than using thicker aluminum," he says. "It's chapter and verse for some of the things NASA has done – its heartbreaking to see my team following these problems."

Another problem is Carmack's decision to be the opposite of a pointy haired boss, he said, noting that he had stepped away from Armadillo to focus on software for a few years. This meant that when he disagreed with his team, he didn't feel like he could suggest changes. "I didn't feel really justified – I never want to be that manager that's out of touch with what's going on in engineering saying 'back in my day we did it this way'... I let my hands off the wheel there."

Armadillo Aerospace had come (and is still) "tantalizingly close" to developing rockets for the suborbital market, Carmack says, but a combination of balooning costs, a slower pace of development, and multiple crashed rockets forced him to take a look at the company's prospects for genuine success.

"Earlier this year we crashed the last rocket from Armadillo and I did spin down most of the development work for this year. ... the situation we're at right now is things are turned down to hibernation mode," he says. "If we don't wind up landing an investor it will probably stay in hibernation until there's another liquidity event where I throw another million into things."

Carmack is one of many tech titans that have poured money into space efforts, alongside Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and electric-car magnate Elon Musk's SpaceX. For the last few years, SpaceX has streaked ahead, winning contracts and acclaim, while its competitors have futzed around crashing lots of rockets and not bringing in much dosh.

The difference between the fortunes of Armadillo Aerospace and SpaceX might come down to Musk's messianic quest to "die on Mars," Carmack indicated.

"A couple of weeks ago I was trading some emails with Elon Musk from SpaceX, and I was saying I'm excited about these virtual reality things and other stuff, and he kind of hits me with this 'if it's not on the path of colonizing Mars or making the money to fund colonizing Mars, then it's just not that important.' He's making me feel guilty for not thinking on an planetary scale. Elon is serious about all that stuff." ®

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