February 5, 2018

#14 - New Space: Small Rockets

Adam Gilmour, the CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies, shares the story of a company trying to get in on the space race by building small, low-cost, rockets.

#14 - New Space: Small Rockets

A wave of investment and interest in space has inspired a new breed of entrepreneurs across the globe to find ways to do space on the cheap. In this episode of Moonshot we chat with Adam Gilmour, the CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies, a company trying to get in on the space race by building small, low-cost, rockets.


Moonshot is hosted by Kristofor Lawson (@kristoforlawson) and Andrew Moon (@moonytweets).

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

And our cover artwork is by Andrew Millist.


NASA Audio: “I'm on the footpad. And, Houston, as I step off at the surface at Taurus-Littrow, I'd like to dedicate these first steps of Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible.”

Adam Gilmour: My brother and I went to a Smithsonian space museum in Kansas as a guest of the facility. And at the end of it they had a shop that had a couple of these spacesuits in there. They’re replica space suits, and they’ve been signed by astronauts. So there was one that was signed by Buzz Aldrin who was the second man on the moon, and the other one was signed by Eugene Cernan who was the last man on the moon.

NASA Audio: “Jack, I'm out here. Oh, my golly. Unbelievable. Unbelievable, but is it bright in the Sun.”

Adam Gilmour: So Buzz Aldrin’s the famous guy, I went for that and they said “don’t, don’t take that, Buzz Aldrin signs everything, Eugene Cernan hardly signs anything.”

NASA Audio:  “OK. We landed in a very shallow depression… Very shallow, dinner-plate-like, dish crater just about the width of the struts.”

Adam Gilmour: And then if you think about it, historically the first man on the moon was fantastic, but this guy was the last man on the moon.

NASA Audio: “This is Gene, and I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future…”

Adam Gilmour: It’s almost tragic. You know it was forty years ago, and he even, if you read a book about him, or read about him, he even as he stepped back into the capsule said, ‘we came in peace, may we come back again soon’, ‘cause at the time he knew that was the last flight, and he said ‘may we come back again soon’, and we haven’t.

NASA Audio: “We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

Adam Gilmour: You know, so I look at that and I get inspired. That I want to fulfill what he wanted humankind to do, we’ve got to get back to the moon.

NASA Audio: “I was strolling on the moon one day. In the merry, merry month of December… No, May, May’s the month...”

KRIS: Welcome to Moonshot - the show bringing you the latest and greatest technology that is about to change your future.

KRIS: I’m Kristofor Lawson

ANDREW: And I’m Andrew Moon

KRIS: And in the next two episodes of Moonshot - we’re going back to space. Not literally of course… but you’re going to hear from some of the people making the space race more affordable….and more accessible.

ANDREW: We’re talking to some of a new breed of space companies who are trying to make it cheaper to build space technology… things like satellites, and of course rockets.

KRIS: So join us as we explore the new era of space. And in this episode we meet an entrepreneur taking on the giants of the space industry by building his own ‘low-cost’ rockets…

KRIS: When you think about space and the companies building their business around what’s out there -  it’s hard to go past the big players like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and even Virgin Galactic.

Each of them has lofty goals of turning outer space into our new urban centers– sending masses of paying people beyond Earth’s atmosphere. We know that Elon Musk wants to send people to Mars... we talked about that in our very first episode of Moonshot.

But while all those big space companies have deep pockets, which they’re using to build huge rockets, there are many smaller startups trying to step in and fill the void.. Welcome to the ‘small space’ market.

Adam Gilmour: We are designing and building a launch vehicle predominantly for launching small satellites into space.

KRIS: That’s the voice of Adam Gilmour, you heard him talking at the top of the show, he’s the founder of Gilmour Space Technologies, a company that is actively trying to get in on the space race,  by building their own, small, rockets.

Adam Gilmour: So our rocket's going to be around 25 metres tall and it's going to have a diameter of about 1.5 metres wide.

KRIS: Gilmour Space manufactures their rockets out of a small warehouse at Pimpama, on Australia’s Gold Coast. They also have an office in Singapore. And the market their trying to capture is very different from the big players like SpaceX or Blue Origin.

Adam Gilmour: Well those guys are both going after kind of what I call the big end of town. So they're building massive rockets that can take payloads the size of two school buses into space and they're hoping that their kind of technology can expand human exploration.

Adam Gilmour: So they're basically hoping that NASA and ESA and all the other space agencies give them contracts to send people and big payloads to the moon and Mars. The market we are looking at is the small satellite market. The small satellite market doesn't go well on a big rocket because a rocket only really goes to one place and if you're a small satellite, you go where the big satellite goes, not where you want to go. So as the small satellite industry's grown, we've found that there's a desire to go on a small rocket that takes exactly where they want to go and that's the market we're going after.

Adam Gilmour: So for example, in pure numbers, our rocket will be able to take 400 kilograms to orbit. When the Falcon Heavy goes up, it can take up to 54,000 kilograms to orbit. So very different kind of target market that we're going after.

ANDREW: Gilmour Space isn’t the only company racing to build a big business of small satellites.

ANDREW: AND before you ask what exactly small is when it comes to satellites, they’re defined as being anything up to 500 kilograms.

ANDREW: Now across the ditch, New Zealand based ‘Rocket Lab’ is another player– they’re a couple of years ahead of Gilmour.

ANDREW: And they recently launched a rocket called ‘Still Testing’ [launch countdown]... which had a small payload of ‘cube satellites’ onboard.

ANDREW: These satellites are even smaller again - about the size of a single loaf of bread.

ANDREW: In the United States, Texas-based Firefly Aerospace has taken in more than 20 million dollars of funding.

ANDREW: And not to be left out–Richard Branson’s Virgin Group has launched Virgin Orbit. Their aim is to launch small satellites from the wings of a Boeing 747, at 35,000 feet.

KRIS: And when you think about this market as a whole, considering that Gilmour space was initially bootstrapped by Adam Gilmour, and last year raised a series A round of just $5 million, the company has achieved an extraordinary amount.

KRIS: So where are you in your sort of your timeline of what you're hoping to achieve.

Adam Gilmour: Yeah, we're about halfway so we think we're going to do our first orbital shots in early 2020 and early commercial shots by the end of 2020, so we're about two and a half years behind Rocket Lab... One of the things that's great about the launch market is the amount of satellites that need to be launched is in the thousands in the next five years, and I consider there's about four or five small rocket companies in development including Rocket Lab that will probably make it to be successful in orbital rockets.

Adam Gilmour: Even if all of us get there, there's still not enough of our rockets to launch all the satellites, so I'm not really worried too much about the competition right now because we can all be successful and get enough business. Same kind of concept with 50 different airliners. There's a lot of airliners out there. They're all making money getting customers. It's the same with rockets, especially small rockets because the satellite market is so big.

ANDREW: Gilmour space has around 30 employees, and plans to launch a test rocket this year which will reach heights of around 70km.

ANDREW: And that small satellite market Adam mentioned was valued at 1.92 Billion US dollars in 2015, and it’s set to grow to 4.47 Billion by 2020.

Kris: But Adam isn’t your ordinary space entrepreneur, he actually started his career in banking before deciding he wanted to get in on the space race. And it’s this background in finance which Adam says gives him a unique advantage when it comes to building low-cost rockets.

Adam Gilmour: ...One of the things bankers do a lot is they look at what industries are growing, what are falling and what industries are ripe for kind of rapid change. And I looked at space as an industry that was ready for rapid change. You know it had been this kind of old industry that hadn't changed much since the 1950s and I thought this was something that could be changed dramatically… The prices were just far too expensive… I saw the billionaires coming into the business and that gave me a lot of kind of confidence because these guys don't muck around.

KRIS: Now one of the ways that Gilmour Space is trying to do space on the cheap, is to harness 3D Printing. A lot of their rocket parts are printed, and they’ve also developed a way to 3D print part of the rocket’s fuel source.

Adam Gilmour:  We use a type of rocket called the hybrid rocket engine and that is an engine that uses a liquid oxidizer and a solid fuel. The technology around that has been around the 1950s but it's never aggressively been gone after for kind of big commercial rockets because there's been problems with hybrids in the past. We did a lot of research on why those problems happen and thought we could fix them, that we knew a way...

KRIS: What sort of problems are you talking-

Adam Gilmour: Well in a nutshell, they either burn too fast or burn too slow. The actual fuel. So we kind of went a little bit like Goldilocks and found a fuel that burns just right. And we've been testing that fuel for the last 18 months in different engine sizes all the way up to, in December we tested a really big motor that we'll use for our orbital vehicle. Generated double the thrust of say Rocket Lab's motor even under half pressure. We've got another test in about a week and a half at full pressure where we'll be like four times as powerful as Rocket Lab's motor. So we've basically already proved our methodology on this hybrid fuel works and that's probably the largest technological risk the company has that we're taking off the table now.

Adam Gilmour: After here it's basically stuff like stage separation, guidance navigation and control, payload fairing separation. All of these technologies have been around for a long time and on a lot of them we're actually talking to other space industry players who are trying to get into the small market and offering very, very good prices for some of these critical components. Prices that are so good, it's cheaper for us to buy it from them than to develop it ourselves.

KRIS: Many people will remember the SpaceX rocket which exploded on the launch site in September 2016. It was a couple of days out from launch and was carrying a satellite that Facebook was planning to use as part of its quest to deliver free internet across the globe.

ANDREW: These catastrophic failures are often caused by very small problems, and SpaceX have said the failure was likely due to a small build-up of liquid oxygen, in a buckle, in the lining of one of their fuel tanks.

ANDREW: But Gilmour space is using a hybrid rocket system - and Adam says one of the advantages of using this method is safety.  The fuel is kept in both liquid and solid forms making it unlikely they would have a failure in one of their engines.

Adam Gilmour: Well, that's the beauty of our motor system, we cannot have a catastrophic explosion in our rocket motor. We just can't... so...And, you know, that's basically chemistry.

KRIS: Then, why don't they build rockets the same way that you're building them?

Adam Gilmour: Well because I think… people thought hybrids just didn't work. They just thought, okay, they had limited opportunities, limited capability and we figured a way to get them to work. So I think ... what my wife worries about is that after we've successfully proved hybrid rockets work, other people will start having a better look at them.

KRIS: But having a fuel system that’s more stable doesn’t mean the development process is completely problem free… almost every rocket company runs into some technical glitches. SpaceX famously released a blooper reel of all their rocket explosions… and Gilmour space has certainly had their fair share of issues during the testing process.

Adam Gilmour: We've had a couple of like small detonations, mainly on just pressure vessels that went beyond their operating pressure and then had a, like, the end cap flew off, but small stuff, you know, like ten litre tanks and stuff like that. And since then we are a lot more careful with pressure vessels and we hydrostatically test everything now, which means you kind of put water in it, then pressurise it and then if you have leak, if it's going to burst, it just leaks. So you get a water leak first. So it's a really safe way of pressure testing pressure vessels. So we haven't had anything go wrong in the last 18 months.

KRIS: And we’ll have more with Adam Gilmour right after this break.

[Ad Break]

KRIS: Now before the break we were speaking with Adam Gilmour - the founder of Gilmour Space Technologies… a startup that’s trying to get in on the new  space market by building low-cost rockets to deliver small satellites to orbit.

KRIS: Adam showed me around his warehouse on the Gold Coast and it’s amazing to see how his team are actually making their rocket a reality.

Adam Gilmour: So this is one of the nozzles that we made, so we made this nozzle out of a carbon fibre composite, and we have a mould in the nozzle design and then we wrap it around.

Adam Gilmour: So up here we've got some aluminium tanks that we're using for some of our early vehicles to use as oxidizer tanks and for the fuel grain tank.... we're moving off of this as a technology. After this we're going to all carbon fibre because these just, even though they're lightweight aluminium alloys that are aerospace grade, they're still a lot heavier than carbon fibre. They're fine for sounding rockets but not good for orbital.

KRIS: Is carbon fibre still cheap at the scale to -

Adam Gilmour: Yeah, it's kind of, it's one of those ... the material's actually pretty cheap but to manufacture it can be expensive. So we're buying a machine that can manufacture it ourselves.

Adam Gilmour: Inside of there they're actually making the fuel for the next big engine that we're going to test next week.

KRIS:  Is it, like, a complex process, to like, make the fuel?

Adam Gilmour: Yeah, yeah it is, it is. You've got to be [reasonably 00:05:26] precise and we're mixing different stuff and we use that as part of a [00:05:30] 3D printing process as well.

ANDREW: Now all of these components are designed to be cheap to mass produce and eventually thrown away after a single usage. Unlike companies like SpaceX who are actively pursuing the idea of reusable rockets in an effort to reduce their costs, Gilmour Space is hoping they can make the entire process cheap enough that you don’t need to worry about making the rockets reusable.

Adam Gilmour: Reusability is another kind of buzzword that's out there but we're still waiting to see what the true costs of reusability is because people like to think that it's going to be like a jet where you can kind of land the jet, put some fuel in it and take it off again, but they forget that jets actually have a lot of maintenance on them as well. About a third of an airline's operating costs is its maintenance on its aircraft. So, it's not like you can land a rocket and refuel it for free and take it up and there's no other costs. If you look at what SpaceX has done, I think the quickest he's turned around a rocket is around about six months. So for six months, he's had people working on that and spending money refurbishing it. His goal is to get it to a day. If he does that, it probably will become quite economical, but let's see if he can, otherwise it's just cheaper to mass produce a whole lot.

ANDREW: When you think about the space race, you probably think about the two biggest competitors - the United States and Russia, and before that, the Soviet Union.

ANDREW: But many other countries are now catching up, with their own space programs.

ANDREW: Gilmour Space is hoping to base their rocket manufacturing in Australia – and with good timing, as Australia prepares to launch its own national space agency.

ANDREW: One of the advantages of being located in the southern hemisphere is launch conditions. You’ve got low air traffic, and Australia in particular has plenty of open space for launches.

ANDREW: Over in New Zealand, Rocketlab already has approval to launch up to 120 times per year... and Gilmour is hoping that the Australian government can get a launch facility built before they need to look elsewhere.

Adam Gilmour: ...we'd get a lot further if we just moved straight to the US. There's so much better infrastructure there. There's so much better investor appetite, so I think we're at a disadvantage here. We don't really have any government support. We haven't had any big grants from the government, a small one from the Queensland government and that's about it. You look in America, NASA's funding so many different companies with big, big bucks to develop technology so we'd be in an advantage if we moved and we may move...

Adam Gilmour: ...We can build fighter jets and we can build rockets and we can build whatever we want. It's just you've got to believe that you can and that's what everybody else does.

KRIS: Now Adam isn’t holding out hope for a launch site to be built locally - so they’ve been talking to NASA about launching their rockets from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

KRIS: NASA has been preparing for small launch vehicles and are providing an attractive pricing structure. And every dollar matters if you’re a small startup trying to do space on the cheap, because every extra cent spent on launching the rocket will go to the bottom line. So I asked adam about what those costs will actually look like to a customer.

KRIS: Okay, so I'm a satellite provider and I have a satellite. I want to put it in space and I come to you and I say, "I want you to put my satellite into space. How much does it cost?"

Adam Gilmour: Well, we're selling a whole vehicle for around $8 million dollars, and we've got prices on our website that range from about $32,000 dollars a kilo for small stuff down to $21,000 down a kilo for big stuff. $21,000 dollars is the cheapest in the market.

KRIS: And that compares to, I think, SpaceX has like 60-90 million for a launch.

Adam Gilmour: Yeah, so price per kilogramme of the big rockets is way cheap. It's like $3,000 dollars a kilo, but to get that price you have to put a bus onto SpaceX. So, if you want to put a small rocket on SpaceX, they'll charge you $50,000 dollars a kilo. Well they won't even do it, a provider will congregate a whole lot of small sats, put it on a SpaceX rocket and take it up, but they charge around $50-70,000 a kilo, so we're going to be significantly cheaper than that…

KRIS: When did you first become interested in space? Do you remember the moment when you first got a feeling that space was something that fascinated you?

Adam Gilmour: No, I don't really remember the exact moment, but I remember when I was four, my parents went to the US and told me they were going to Kennedy Space Centre and I remember asking my dad to bring me back a rocket. And I meant a real one but he got me back a toy one, and I remember when he came and gave me the toy rocket, it was a Saturn V, very proudly and I looked at him and I'm like, "That's not big enough. I want a big one."

KRIS: Do you want to go to Mars?

Adam Gilmour: Not really, no. I really like the Earth. I think it's fantastic. I'd love to go to space. If you look at the moon and Mars, right. The moon is a three day trip. You can spend two days there and be back within a week. Mars is six months there. Because of the way the planet's align, you've got to spend another year and a half on the surface before you can even come back. It's a two year round trip. I just don't really want to be off the planet for two years.

KRIS: If you look at your company in ten years, what does it look? Is it just doing rockets or are you providing technology to other companies... what do you see yourself as in ten years or 20 years.

Adam Gilmour: We're working on an upper stage that can take a 20 kilogramme package to the orbit of the moon or Mars or even 10 kilogrammes to the orbit of Saturn. And that you can put, for 20 kilogrammes, you can put a pretty cool science satellite on that with great cameras, other sensors, solar panels, a radar dish, so we think we can do a lot of work on solar system exploration on the real cheap. We've been talking to NASA about this already, so that's some of the cooler stuff we're going to do. Five years away, seven years away, is planetary exploration on the super cheap.

KRIS: Despite the huge interest in new space companies wanting to get out there and explore - space is known to be an expensive business which you can only break into with enough capital. But when you’re building a space company in a market like Australia - convincing investors of the benefits of building a rocket can be challenging.

Adam Gilmour: We've had to educate investors just on the industry itself. What is the opportunity? I guess the best investors that we've found have already invested in a satellite company, so they understand the profitability of the satellite companies, and then we're a derivative of that because we have to launch the satellite companies. But if you find an investor that just doesn't know anything about space, it's very hard to convince them about space.

KRIS: What are usually the questions that they have?

Adam Gilmour: How are you going to make money? How does anybody make money in space? They don't understand space as a $350 billion global industry annually. And a lot of people just don't realise how much money's in space, they don't realise how much everybody uses space. On your phone is space technology. You use Google Maps, space technology. When you take money out an ATM, space technology. You know, space technology's everywhere and you're paying for it even if you don't think you are. But people don't realise that, right? The only way anything gets into space is when a rocket sends it.

KRIS:  And that'll be you.

Adam Gilmour: We'll be one of them, yeah.