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The City of Titusville, Florida / NewsRocket Crafters aiming for weekly launchesRocket Crafters aiming for weekly launches
Tim Walters, FLORIDA TODAY 7:11 a.m. EDT September 15, 2016
Two-time shuttle astronaut Sid Gutierrez has always been a skeptic.
As a test pilot in the U.S. Air Force, Gutierrez made a living poking holes in the ideas contractors offered to the military.
“I’m used to debunking solutions people propose,” he said. “Every now and again, someone has an excellent piece of equipment, but I’m always very skeptical.”
So when Gutierrez was approached by startup company Rocket Crafters, he was prepared to find something that the start-up company overlooked.
Rocket Crafters is developing hybrid rockets to lift small satellites — micro and cubesats — into space. They say their rockets will make launches safer, more affordable and more accessible to companies and colleges. They hope to start testing their rockets on the Space Coast this month in partnership with Florida Institute of Technology.
Sid Gutierrez is a two-time shuttle astronaut who is CEO of Rocket Crafters.
Gutierrez said he was intrigued because very few companies say they have perfected hybrid rocket systems, and even fewer say they can do it while using additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing.
“When I ran into the founders of Rocket Crafters at a conference, I knew hybrids were the way to go, but nobody had figured out how to deal with the issues. They figured it out,” Gutierrez said. “I was skeptical. That’s the way I felt. I’ll debunk these guys — shoot holes in what they have done. Then, by golly, they had answers that made sense with data to back it up.
“Their response was, ‘this guy asked us tough questions, we want him on our team.’ That’s how we joined up. I retired from my previous job to work on this company full time.”
That was in 2012. Gutierrez is now chairman and CEO of the company.
Gutierrez, who piloted space shuttle Columbia in 1991 and commanded an Endeavour mission in 1994, believes in the technology that is the brainchild of company president and chief technology officer, Ron Jones.
Jones got involved in additive manufacturing while working for a company in Arkansas named SpaceDev in the mid-2000s. SpaceDev, which was developing hybrid rocket engines, was purchased by Sierra Nevada Corporation in 2009.
A hybrid rocket incorporates features of both solid and liquid rockets. In a hybrid rocket, the oxidizer and fuel are stored in two different states of matter, i.e., liquid oxidizer and solid fuel, making accidental detonation less likely. Compared to a liquid-fueled rocket, a hybrid rocket is mechanically simpler, with fewer moving parts.
Rockets that use some form of liquid propellants include the space shuttles, Delta IV, Atlas V and SpaceX Falcon 9, among others.
Sierra Nevada, which recently was selected to develop a deep space, long-duration human habitat design and prototype for NASA, is developing a mini shuttle called Dream Chaser, which utilizes hybrid technology.
Virgin Galactic has experienced setbacks and delays using hybrid rocket engines designed by Sierra Nevada between 2009 and 2014. In 2014, Virgin ended its relationship with Sierra Nevada and began making its own version of hybrid rockets.
An even earlier version of Virgin’s tourists-to-space craft exploded during a test flight of its hybrid engine in 2007.
While the hybrid fuel and additive manufacturing technology is complex, it can be explained fairly simply.
“What makes our rockets unique amongst everyone else is that we have the patented formula for putting together what is effectively the same compound that children’s building blocks are made out of, effectively, like a Lego, if you will, an oxidizer that is effectively laughing gas, mix it with a spark, and we have the ability to create rocket thrust that is appropriate for the size of payload that we look to launch into orbit,” said Sean Mirsky, a member of Rocket Crafters’ board of directors and founder of the ZNES Group, an investing and solutions company.
Essentially, Rocket Crafters can scale their fuel pattern to the size of the payload they’re launching.
By using 3D printing, they say they can accurately print their rocket fuel pattern, something no company has yet accomplished.
“We can actually go through as opposed to a solid rocket booster where you take a whole bunch of stuff and mix it together and burn it at a pretty consistent rate, we actually have the ability to print a specific fuel pattern, give it more thrust at takeoff, lighten off as we get closer to orbit so that way we can control our flight pattern even more precisely than a previous rocket could,” Mirsky said.
So far, the company has successfully tested its hybrid engine more than two dozen times in Utah working together with Utah State University.
However, now they want to test closer to Cape Canaveral, where they plan to launch their rockets, possibly within the next two to three years. At Florida Tech, the tests will take place at the university’s aerodynamics lab located on campus, as well as their outdoor rocket motor test stand.
“We are going to help them do some independent testing of the performance of this new rocket propulsion concept they have come up with,” said Dan Kirk, Florida Tech professor and associate dean for research in the College of Engineering.
“The cool thing about it is, the instrumentation can be moved to different locations. If we’re doing small rocket testing, we can do those on campus. It doesn’t bother our neighbors. But when we move to larger rocket motors, maybe something more experimental, we can put our test equipment onto a mobile trailer, drive to a safe location and do tests remotely.”
Kirk has five graduate students and 10 undergraduate students assisting with the Rocket Crafters project.
Kirk, like Gutierrez, is a believer in Rocket Crafters’ new technology.
“My assessment is it will be safer and more reliable than the current state of the art technology,” Kirk said.
In 2012, Rocket Crafters received support from the city of Titusville and Space Coast Regional Airport when it announced plans to build craft that would take off like traditional jets, fly into sub-orbit and then land like a jet thousands of miles away, completing a journey that would take about one-sixth the time it would take a traditional airliner.
Ron Jones, president and chief technical officer of Rocket Crafters Inc., announces that his company is coming to Brevard County in 2012. (Photo: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY)
However, the company changed gears. Now, it hopes to launch rockets that look more like a Falcon 9 or Atlas V, using the company’s recently patented system.
Currently, Rocket Crafters is working with CINCINNATI Incorporated (CI) to make its fuel. CI is an industry leader in 3D printing. The company essentially uses Rocket Crafters’ patented formula to make what is called a fuel grain.
“The fuel grain is the heart of a hybrid rocket engine,” said Jones, who lives in Brevard County with his wife. “It’s molded or cast from synthtic rubber or candle wax. In our case, we use a tougher, more resilient material, a thermoplastic with additive. We print these with 3D printers rather than molding or casting. With a 3D printer, we can ensure much higher quality.”
Rocket Crafters is hoping for a first test flight late in 2018, and officials said there has been plenty of interest from potential customers.
Rocket Crafters currently is in the process of creating a facility in Titusville that will house manufacturing as well as executive and office functions. They also utilize space in Mirsky’s ZNES Group office north of Orlando in Lake Mary for research and development. They also hope to someday utilize multipurpose launch pads at Kennedy Space Center, as well as others throughout the world depending upon the orbit to which they are launching.
“When you think of traditional launch services, you’re thinking of hundred-million dollar satellites being produced for government or major commercial reasoning mixed with a $70 million to $100 million launch to go on top of it,” Mirsky said. “At that point you’re paying for things with budgets that your typical investor or innovator has no access to. The reason why Rocket Crafters exists is that access to space is closer now to your average person than ever before.”
Rocket Crafters has designs to be able to have weekly launches, possibly as soon as the early 2020s.
“We want to reach the point where people come to work Monday, and say, ‘what do we launch this week?’ ” Gutierrez said. “We load it on the launcher and take it to the launch pad Tuesday, launch Wednesday, clean up Thursday and take Friday off.”