2021: a space business’s odyssey

Despite a recent mishap, Gilmour Space Technologies’ goal of offering commercial trips to orbit in 2021 is unchanged. Brent Balinski spoke to founder and CEO Adam Gilmour about the need for local launches, the $150 million federal boost to space companies, and the enduring mystery of a recent award nomination.  


If you hadn’t noticed already, small satellites for collecting and transmitting useful data is all the rage. Whether it’s to provide super-fast broadband, Internet of Things communications, or earth imaging services, lots of businesses are aiming to get these into orbit.


Some estimate the demand is for 5,000 spacecraft to be launched in the next five years. At the same time, right now there is only one company specifically serving this booming market, with maybe 130 trying to get started as smallsat launch providers. 


There are, naturally, bottlenecks. As Flavia Tata Nardini, co-founder and CEO of Fleet Space, told us recently, they had to wait several months to finally get a spot on a SpaceX Falcon 9.


If a nanosatellite can get a ticket to space, it’s generally on a big rocket, generally on a primary mission to move a big satellite. 


“People on the street who are not space geeks don’t understand that it’s not like on a commercial airplane, where you can fly to Los Angeles and then hop on a bus to San Francisco,” says Adam Gilmour, founder and CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies, which hopes to eventually service nanosatellite owners.


“Space is different: you’re traveling at extreme velocities, you have a lot of momentum. If you want to change location, it costs a lot of energy and a lot of fuel. So the anecdote I like to make is for a 30 degree angle change in orbit the same amount of energy is required to go from low earth orbit to the moon.


“If the big rocket’s not going where the small satellite wants to go, they’re stuffed.” 


Gilmour’s company began in 2013, initially focussing on simulator manufacturing. In 2015 the focus shifted to low-cost missions for small spacecraft. GST has grown quickly, hiring 45 staff in the last three years, and holding $5 million Series A and $19 million Series B rounds in May 2017 and September 2018 respectively.


It is developing 100 kilogram and 400 kilogram capacity rockets for low earth orbit journeys, fuelled by hybrid engines using a 3D printed fuel, the nature of which is a tightly-held secret. Current modelling holds that the company would be profitable charging $30,000 per kilogram launched, and the first commercial rocket will cost under $6 million to build. 


Gilmour estimates about 80 per cent of rockets by mass will be sourced and built within Australia. Imported content is “in the margin,” and includes some avionics, electromechanical and valve parts.


“In the long run I think everything can be made in Australia; there’s no reason why it can’t be,” Gilmour tells @AuManufacturing.


“In the short run what we’ve done is gone out into adjacent industries and seen people that have capability that we could use and modify to build stuff for our rocket.


“[We’ll say], ‘Look, we’ll give you the design and then you manufacture it.’ So what we could buy from overseas is the final product already designed and manufactured, but we don’t mind helping out in the design work and collaborating with companies.”


Asked where the recently-announced $150 million support for Australian space companies could be spent to boost the sector, Gilmour does not hesitate: we need a launch site. A site is being developed at Port Lincoln and another in the Northern Territory – which would suit some inclinations – but the founder believes other paths should also be offered from Queensland.  


With no Australian commercial spaceports currently in operation, Gilmour Space has developed its own mobile launchpads. One of these was trucked from Pimpama near the Gold Coast to a site more than 2,000 kilometres away, south of Mt Isa, for a flight test of a nine-metre One Vision rocket.


Seven seconds to the July 29 launch, One Vision suffered an anomaly” related to a pressure regulator in the oxidiser tank and the mission failed. While disappointing, Gilmour believes it does not set plans back. The next launch will be roughly 18 months away, and a goal of commercial flights in 2021 is unchanged. 


“It was a design that was done about two years ago, and in the time we’ve hired a lot more senior engineers and done a total redesign of the vehicle. So it was really a legacy technology that we were testing, mainly for marketing and publicity purposes, and to prove that we could,” Gilmour shares.


“But in terms of a timeline, we basically wasted about three months doing the final touches to the rocket, going out and launching and all the rest of it. We are moving forward already on the next vehicle, with updated, improved designs… An analogy I can make is you prototyping a car from three years ago and then it gets finalised and then crashes, but in the meantime you’ve built a new car.”


To continue the optimism, Gilmour believes the prime minister’s Washington NASA announcement is a “massive tipping point” for local space businesses and lifting their ability to advance themselves and move into global supply chains. 


“If I got a bit of that $150 million, I’d probably very quickly go and hire another 20 to 30 people to speed us up and work on new products,” he says.


“And that’s a mix of all the different engineers and technical staff we need to beef up on our technical [workforce], like CNC machinists, fabricators, et cetera.”


Gilmour moved back home from Singapore in January. Last month he received an Advanced Manufacturing category prize in the Advance Awards, given to high-performing expats.


“I was pretty shocked actually, because normally [for] awards you have to submit stuff… That one came out of the blue,” he says.


“I don’t know who it was. I’ve got a feeling it was the high commissioner in Singapore, Bruce Gosper, but that’s just a guess.”


The award will be formally presented during a gala dinner on October 17.


“It’s all good,” he says regarding the confusion over how he was in the running for the prestigious award, which has previously gone to winners such as robotics entrepreneur Rodney Brooks and OtherLab founder Saul Griffith. 


“But if I get up on stage I’m going to say, ‘You guys ain’t seen nothing yet.’”


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