Microlaunchers Hopes to Make Space Exploration Accessible to Everyone [Interview]

As I continue to explore all of the exciting citizen science projects and space-related initiatives going on around the world today, I always keep an eye out for projects that are unique and can get lots of people excited about space. I recently came across one such project, called Microlaunchers. What caught my attention is that the founders are focused not only on creating new ways to access space, but to do it affordably and on a mass-scale. This is a subject near and dear to my heart so I thought I’d reach out to the folks behind the project to learn more.

Keep in mind as you’re reading through this that we’re not talking about manned spacecraft like the SpaceX initiative. These are smaller launchers with smaller payloads (and smaller costs) that can be used to reach space in larger numbers for exploratory purposes. Think miniaturized satellites for instance. Perhaps in the future the project may evolve to include full-size launchers however for now, starting small seems to be the road less travelled. This is what I find most intriguing about this initiative.The idea of sending small satellites and launchers to space for specific studies or other purposes is highly appealing to me. Several dozen universities already have satellites in orbit that were designed and managed by students. This should be something every astronomy student in America has access to. In fact, I’d love to see similar projects happening in high-schools everywhere as well. Perhaps exciting ventures like Microlaunchers can help make this a reality soon.

Microlaunchers Interview

Charles Pooley is the founder of Microlaunchers and has been the driving force behind their progress thus far. He is all too aware of the challenges (and costs) involved with modern-day space exploration. He hopes that Microlaunchers can play a roll in overcoming some of these obstacles. Mr. Pooley graciously allowed me to interview him recently to discuss the road ahead for Microlaunchers (highlighted brackets or links have been inserted where I think they’re needed for clarification):

WC: Who came up with the idea of Microlaunchers and who is involved currently?

CP: I actually started Microlaunchers in the fall of 1995, after the end of a project with Pacific Rocket Society. That projects’ purpose was to send the first amateur rocket to space. I actually designed the rocket in the summer of 1993 and it got as far as an engine test in 1995. The first version of the Microlaunchers launch vehicle is based on that design. In May of 2008, I responded to an RFI based around the development of an optical data link for a GLXP [Google Lunar X Prize] entrant. That’s how I connected with Blair Gordon. He liked the Microlaunchers idea and we have been trying to get things going since.

WC: What is your background?

CP: Formal education is BSEE but most of what I know today is self-taught. Since reading a Collier’s magazine article in 1952 when I was in the 5th grade, I have always been interested in space, mainly around propulsion and how to get there.

UA: What are you trying to accomplish with Microlaunchers?

CP: Remember the Altair 8800?  Microlaunchers is going to do that in space.  It is to make planning, executing probes to space, beyond low Earth orbit, accessible at a low-cost and very large numbers, in contrast with the present high-cost, infrequent opportunity situation that exists now. Like the situation with computers in the mainframe era and what the advent of Altair and its progeny did. The Moon has been landed upon 19 times.  It can be 19,000 times.

WC: How can it be done that often?

CP: First, by creating a community that is directly involved. They will have the chance to directly plan and execute a fly-by of an asteroid. This can be done by individuals and small groups including college and high school groups. By the thousands. Later the spacecraft can evolve, as Altair did.

UA: How do you specifically intend to lower the costs of reaching space with the launchers?

CP: By use of a very small, vertically integrated launcher during the first stage based on the Spacefarer X-80, with use of irrigation tubing and other cheap materials like those I used in the 1994 project. Also, we can keep costs down by doing work in-house. There is no use of outside contractors and we use scaled down designs. The cost of selected components are really low right now. A first stage launcher should be under several hundred [dollars] in materials and a complete 3 or 4 stage launcher would be under $2000 in parts.

WC: Is Microlaunchers a for-profit organization or non-profit?

CP: It will be organized as several for-profit LLC or S corps, for each of several independently invested ventures. Unless a single investor became interested in all.

WC: Okay so how is Microlauncher going to make money?

This image is an artists rendition of

CP: The 2013 NanoSatellite Challenge  is our first step followed by a CubeSat launch service. There are over 100 CubeSats awaiting launch, and probably when a launch service appears, more will be built. There are companies offering kits now. So there’s an opportunity there. Also, space burials. They have been at it over 20 years and have only orbited 85 remains capsules because there’s no affordable way to launch. They only have access to secondary payloads and even these are a small fortune.  We’ve studied the market and the revenue potential is extremely high. For example, a basic service could be 25 or so 1-2 gram samples to solar orbit between Earth and Mars for $10k each. A billion year lifetime can be promised since the probability of hitting Earth or Mars is nil. We will also be funded by grants or cash customers of missions to, at first, photograph NEOs [near earth objects] or high lunar orbits, then later low lunar orbits, rendezvous and landing on NEOs. Finally, after ML-2 has scaled up and we’ve got a 1kg launcher onto the lunar surface,  regolith return for sale by the milligram becomes possible.

WC: Is this something your team is working on full-time?

CP: I have been at it mostly full-time. I do take on occasional consulting and employment positions for support until an investor comes on-board or additional funding becomes available. I’ve personally invested over $30k out of pocket since starting out. Blair is beginning to get more involved as well in a greater capacity.

WC: Okay so you don’t have financial backing yet?

CP: Not yet.  After the first LLC filing later this month, we can go after SBIRs as well as other DARPA and NASA grants.

WC: How can others get a better understanding of your technology?

CP: The basic tech can be found on the Microlaunchers website in the SA-05 area [http://www.microlaunchers.com/7816/L3/sa05/sa05.html]  Since the initial work, I have been working on designs as a starting point for when the hardware phase begins.  The turbopump engine in the diagram at the end of SA-05 information may come later with the first version of ML-1 using a simpler pressure driven engine for the first stage.  The upper stages will use pressure engines, as the small size allows good performance in vacuum with low pressure. The four locations are mentioned on the site as well. [http://www.microlaunchers.com/7816/L3/sa09/sa09.html]

WC: How can others get involved with Microlaunchers?

CP: Right now finding a few intensely interested team members would be a great start. Initially, freelance writers for media creation and assistance in writing up proposals could be a tremendous help. It would be great once we’re up and running to find 2 or 3 individuals here in Las Vegas to work in the shop. I’m interested in creating a citizen scientist type initiative as well. I actually did a proposal for this a few years back that’s on the website [http://www.microlaunchers.com/7816/L3/csc/CSC-draft-1.html]. It’s kind of in a holding pattern right now but Microlaunchers may be a good fit for space enthusiasts out there.

WC: Where do you see Microlaunchers in the years ahead?

CP: Within a year or two of getting started with hardware, getting the first launches behind us.  The NanoSatellite could accelerate our first launches. I have already been in contact with the FAA office which licenses launches and I will be getting an Operator’s License. Then, launch rate should build up as sales or grants for missions allow.  If a few others get into this, the conditions may be better, as multiple providers will make for the start of an industry.

WC: If you had unlimited resources, whether it be money, a larger team, or whatever, how fast could you ramp up your efforts to take your technology to market?

CP: I would imemdiately lease space, hire several team members, and immediately begin building a run of about 100 first generation launchers [ML-1], to get spacecraft up ASAP. First launches, probably from the East Coast, would be NanoSat and Cubesat launches and several escape tests. I would also build a prototype capsule dispensing for burial, past the moon or to high elliptical lunar orbit. Then somewhat concurrently, I’d start on turbopump engine development and “ML-2” planning. This involves a 1-2 ton GLOW [Gross Lift-Off Weight] for 3kg escape or 1 kg lunar surface.


Closing Thoughts 

I’m pretty excited that I got a chance to learn more about Microlaunchers. These guys have a new fan and I really do hope they can get something going with their project. I would like to see them blog more frequently and would definitely recommend that they get an updated website. I think they could likely create a following and possibly even achieve financial backing with an improved online presentation.

This reminds me of the early days of computing and even the Internet in many ways. What do you think? In today’s world of budgetary cutbacks at NASA and increased privatization, do smaller launchers/payloads have a possible role in the future of space exploration? Are you personally interested in getting involved in something like this? Let me know your thoughts!

Image Credit: NASA

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