The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Hermes model
A full-scale model of the Hermes suborbital spaceplane, under development by an all-volunteer group, sits in a garage in the Phoenix suburbs. (credit: J. Foust)

Hacking space

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One of the most enduring tales in Silicon Valley is the story of the startup company born in a garage. Hewlett-Packard got its start in a Palo Alto, California, garage in 1939 when Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard made the company’s first product, an audio oscillator, with Walt Disney as one of the company’s initial customers. Over three decades later, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak starting making Apple computers in a garage in nearby Los Altos. Countless other companies have also gotten their start—or at least claimed to get their start—in garages elsewhere in Silicon Valley in beyond.

While some small ventures have made advances, space is still seen as the realm of large, well-capitalized companies.

Startups don’t always start up in garages: sometimes it starts in a spare bedroom or a living room or, as Michael Dell and Mark Zuckerberg individually demonstrated, a college dorm room. The idea is the same, though: even a giant company can have very humble origins, taking advantage of whatever space is available and using readily available resources to get a new company off the ground.

Space, though, doesn’t have the same creation mythology. Space companies are large and capital intensive because, as we are frequently reminded, getting to space is extraordinarily challenging, giving the energies involved in reaching orbit and the harsh environment beyond the atmosphere. While some small ventures have made advances, particularly with suborbital vehicles—Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, and XCOR Aerospace all have made significant progress with small teams and modest facilities—space is still seen as the realm of large, well-capitalized companies.

That view may be changing. Advances in technology, fundraising, and general mindsets are putting space within the grasp of ever-smaller groups, and potentially even individuals. From assembling small satellites to building suborbital and even orbital rockets, space is coming in the reach of the small, nimble startup or even dedicated hobbyists working in shared workspaces and, yes, even garages.

Makers and hackerspaces

The annual Space Access conference has long attracted a broad cross-section of the space transportation industry, from major companies to startups to hobbyists. This year’s conference, held earlier this month in Phoenix, was no exception: the three-day event featured talks from United Launch Alliance, several suborbital vehicles developers, and others with ideas for making space easier and less expensive to reach.

A particular theme this year, though, was the growing capabilities of small groups. Much of this is an offshoot of what’s known as the “Maker” movement of do-it-yourself (DIY) projects. DIY itself is hardly new, but the concept has picked up interest as advances in both computing technology and hardware have allowed hobbyists to pursue increasingly sophisticated projects. Makers have their own magazine, Make, which included a special section about space projects, such as building your own satellite, in a late 2010 issue.

“Some say that there’s no reason why the Maker movement should not have an open source orbital rocket project to put cubesats into orbit,” Pickens said.

A key driver for the Maker movement has been the development of “hackerspaces”, communal workplaces where people can come together to share expertise, equipment, and other resources to work on various projects. “It is a room or a warehouse or a building where a bunch of people get together and work on stuff,” explained Michael Clive, an XCOR Aerospace engineer involved in a group called the Mojave Makers. “That stuff can range from a rocketship to art projects to gardening. It’s a place people go to engage in productive work, but generally work done for fun.”

Clive and Mojave Makers are working to develop such a hackerspace at the Mojave Air and Space Port, a facility that’s already home to several entrepreneurial space companies. The airport is leasing a building to the group and performing some work on it, while the group will be responsible for other renovations to turn it into a working facility.

Others are taking technologies developed in amateur rocketry and seeing if they can reach space. “Sugar is the world’s most commonly used amateur rocket propellant,” noted Rick Maschek. “I wondered if sugar can actually get a rocket into space.” He and several other amateurs created a project called Sugar Shot to Space (SS2S), which seeks to develop a multi-stage rocket powered by sugar-based propellant that could achieve an altitude of at least 100 kilometers.

The SS2S team has been working on testing sugar motors on smaller rockets and test stands, with partial success, at best, so far. At Space Access ’12 Maschek showed video of a static test of the largest sugar motor ever developed. Unfortunately, the motor exploded shortly after ignition. “It was supposed to be the world’s largest sugar motor test, and I guess it was the world’s largest sugar explosion,” he quipped.

Tim Pickens has been the epitome of the Maker movement as applied to space long before the term “Maker” entered common usage. He has worked on various projects, such as a balloon-launched rocket, or “rockoon”, for the High Altitude Lift-Off, or HALO, project of the Huntsville chapter of the National Space Society in the 1990s. While he works today for aerospace company Dynetics, he wondered at the conference if the hobbyist community has advanced to the point where it can at least start considering orbital space projects.

“Some say that there’s no reason why the Maker movement should not have an open source orbital rocket project to put cubesats into orbit,” he said. “Is the timing right for the Maker movement and technology to take it to stars?”

Several people who joined Pickens on the conference panel expressed some skepticism that an orbital spaceflight project was within reach of strictly amateur, hobbyist groups. “I don’t know if an all-amateur do-it-yourselfer could ever get something to orbit,” said Dave Masten, the founder of Masten Space Systems who previously was involved in an amateur rocketry group, the Experimental Rocket Propulsion Society. Dealing with the bureaucracy of launch ranges alone would be a challenge for amateurs, as Masten said his company has struggled with the bureaucracy of the Eastern Range for upcoming suborbital flights of the company’s vehicles from Cape Canaveral. “There’s really some serious challenges there.”

“I seriously have the belief that a group smaller than ten, maybe smaller than five, can build an orbital vehicle,” said Breed. “I couldn’t have said that five years ago.”

Coordinating volunteers would also be a serious challenge. “I see the major challenge of volunteer groups versus small companies is essentially project management,” said Ben Brockert of Armadillo Aerospace. “It’s a lot harder to get people to do the boring work” like filing paperwork with the FAA needed to get permits and licenses for launches. Armadillo, he said, started off as a volunteer organization, but the first person to be hired on a full-time basis was the person handling those regulatory issues.

A more optimistic perspective about the prospects of volunteer groups came form Paul Breed, who competed in the X PRIZE Foundation’s Lunar Lander Challenge as the father of the father-son “Unreasonable Rocket” team. “It’s an interesting time,” he said, citing “universally available” information and the ability to share that information with others as enabling new capabilities. “I seriously have the belief that a group smaller than ten, maybe smaller than five, can build an orbital vehicle. I couldn’t have said that five years ago.”

That is the tack that Breed himself is pursuing, working on rocketry projects outside of his day job at electronics company NetBurner. He has been working on various technologies needed for a launcher, including lightweight propellant tanks and improved electronics. He said at Space Access that he plans to build in the next year a launcher capable of flying at an altitude of at least 30 kilometers. Eventually he wants to develop a launcher to compete for NASA’s Nanosatellite Launch Challenge competition, being coordinated by Space Florida, and use that as the basis for a nanosat launch business.

A one-car, one-spaceship garage

Another example of the interest and potential for spaceflight from volunteer efforts could be found a half hour’s drive from the conference hotel, in the far eastern Phoenix suburbs. At first glance, Morris Jarvis’s house looks much like the home of anyone who is a car enthusiast: several vehicles in various stages of work are parked on the driveway, including one muscle car in the garage being restored. The difference is what is sitting next to that car in the garage: a spaceship.

More accurately, it’s a full-scale model of what Jarvis and a handful of other volunteers are trying to develop: a winged vertical-takeoff, horizontal-landing suborbital spaceplane called Hermes, capable of carrying up to six. The model, built several years ago, is eventually intended to do low speed taxi tests and, later, glide tests. “We’re validating the low-speed characteristics for landing,” he said during a visit to his garage. “Ultimately we’ll use a high-altitude balloon and drop it from there, and do some glide tests.”

In addition to the model of the spaceplane, Jarvis and his all-volunteer group, STAR Systems, have been working on hybrid motors that will power the vehicle’s ascent. So far that work has been limited to smaller motors, with diameters of 5 to 7.5 centimeters (2 to 3 inches). The next step, he said, is to scale up the motors to a larger version, 25 centimeters (10 inches) in diameter. A cluster of those motors, he said, would be used to launch the Hermes.

“We got pretty good feedback that, if we can get a couple more notches under our belt with the big engine, we could get some investment,” Jarvis said.

To fund the development of the larger motors, Jarvis is taking advantage of another innovation not readily available just a few years ago: crowdfunding. Websites like Kickstarter have emerged that allow people to pledge money to various projects, in exchange for getting early access to products or other tokens of appreciation. The concept has gained wide attention through several major projects that have raised millions of dollars. Pebble, a watch that connects via Bluetooth to smartphones, has raised over $6 million through Kickstarter to date—a record—with over 41,000 people “backing” the project by pledging to buy one or more watches.

Jarvis is also using Kickstarter, but with more modest goals. He is hoping to raise $20,000 to help fund development and testing of the larger hybrid motors STAR Systems is working on. The money would primarily go to buying sensors and data acquisition hardware needed for testing the larger motors, plus propellants and other supplies. The rewards they’re offering range from stickers and t-shirts to the ability to put a logo on the vehicle and attend the first test firing of the larger motor.

Jarvis said that the funding they hope to raise from Kickstarter would get them far enough along on their development to raise the interest of potential investors, based on their work developing a business plan for the venture. “We got pretty good feedback that, if we can get a couple more notches under our belt with the big engine, we could get some investment,” he said.

As this article was being prepared for publication early Monday, STAR Systems still had a long way to reach that goal. The Kickstarter drive had attracted 210 backers with pledges totaling $7,742, but that was still less than 40 percent of their goal, with a deadline of Saturday evening.

There no guarantee, of course, that their effort will be successful even if they manage to raise the needed funding through Kickstarter or some alternative. However, as technical and financial innovations help lower the obstacles to spaceflight, the next great space company may emerge some day from a hackerspace or a spare room—or even a garage.