Building a rocket in a garage to take on SpaceX and Blue Origin

Gilmour Space Technologies is a plucky startup in the new space race. Its first mission: sending a powerful hybrid rocket to the edge of space.
Gilmour Space Technologies

Along Australia's eastern edge, the Pacific Ocean laps at sparkling yellow sands. This pristine 35 miles of shoreline is known as the Gold Coast, and over 13 million people visit every year. It's full of postcard-perfect beaches and home to the southern hemisphere's biggest collection of theme parks.

Drive 30 minutes north, towards the quiet suburban town of Pimpama, and you might as well be on another planet. Once covered in strawberry fields, Pimpama lies just off the motorway and is now dotted by spacious, modern houses. The only tourist attractions are a go-kart circuit and a "skate park" -- a lonely double half-pipe in an empty field.

Not the kind of place you'd expect to find the country's most powerful hybrid rocket.  

But that's exactly what hides within the headquarters of Gilmour Space Technologies. In one corner of the company's makeshift hangar, a nine-meter-long rocket, shaped like a bullet and covered in cling wrap and tape, rests on a set of rollers.

The test rocket is the culmination of four years of research, one previous test launch and five successful ground tests of the company's own bleeding-edge rocket engine. The team has dubbed it "One Vision," a nod to the timeless Queen song, and its first flight, originally scheduled for liftoff in April but delayed multiple times, has one goal: getting Gilmour to space.

While billionaire entrepreneurs like SpaceX's Elon Musk and Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos push the boundaries of human spaceflight and exploration, a legion of smaller private startups around the world have been developing their own rocket technology to launch lighter payloads into orbit. This new era of private spaceflight, dubbed "NewSpace," has seen satellites shrink from hulking, bus-sized behemoths to toaster-sized boxes of circuits and solar panels.

That's given plucky, private space vehicle startups like Gilmour an opportunity to get to space.

"There's a lot of companies around the world working on constellations of small satellites, and we want to take them into space," explains Adam Gilmour, the straight-talking banker-turned-CEO of a private spaceflight company. Dressed in a dark blue Gilmour Space Technologies polo and slacks, he glides past his rocket and clusters of employees with purpose.

Gilmour wants to carve out its own niche in a booming industry, one that touches on almost every aspect of our lives. It's a mammoth task for an ex-banker and a handful of engineers operating in a country that, until 2018, didn't even have a space agency. Launching One Vision for the first time will put Gilmour on the map, but failure could be a costly setback for the company's lofty ambitions.

One worldwide vision

SpaceX rocket launch seen from a distance.

SpaceX has outlined plans to get humans to the moon, but the new space race is focused on goals much closer to home.

SpaceX

It's been 50 years since humans first landed on the moon, and companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are outlining ways to get humans off our planet to tour the upper atmosphere and venture farther into the cosmos. NASA is exploring the most distant worlds we've ever seen and looking toward putting humans on Mars, the European Space Agency is readying a next-generation telescope to hunt for exoplanets and China will land two rovers on the moon in a single year.

Outside of the major players, a new space race has begun. Small, private startups are trying to colonize space with miniature relays -- known as CubeSats -- to provide everything from telecommunications support to biological research. They've driven down the cost of satellites, and the private sector has embraced this, causing business to boom.

"It's become big because it's accessible," says Russell Boyce, chair for space engineering at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. "There are high schools in some parts of the world that have their own satellites in orbit."

The CubeSats are designed to weigh less than 3 pounds (1.4kg), making them cheaper to manufacture and small enough to fit in the payload bay of sleek, cheap rockets, rather than the huge ones developed by SpaceX or Arianespace. For example, you might be able to deploy over 50,000 pounds (22,700 kilograms) of payload into low Earth orbit with SpaceX's Falcon 9, but it will cost you $62 million -- and you can't choose your own orbit or when you want to fly.

That's where Gilmour comes in.

Gilmour plans to offer launches for smaller satellites for less than $40,000 per kilogram. They can get inexpensive, small satellites into orbit cheaply -- and with greater frequency. In this new space race, where companies plan to send constellations of hundreds of satellites into space, there's a huge opportunity for Gilmour to capitalize on. It could become like an Uber for space, allowing companies to book rides into orbit.

But building a rocket is incredibly difficult. Dozens of spaceflight companies are in the development phase, showing promise with their proprietary engines and promising big things, but so far there are limited success stories.

The private US spaceflight company Rocket Lab is one such success, having launched its first "Electron" rocket from New Zealand in January 2018. Since then, the company has put satellites into orbit for customers such as Spire Global, Fleet Space Technologies, NASA and even the US Defense Department.

Other companies are deep in the development phase, but Gilmour suggests they may have started the design process too early, building rockets that will end up slightly too small and thus, less cost-effective.

"We've sized ours a little bit bigger so we can take the OneWeb, the SpaceX [Starlink], the TeleSat and any of the other vehicles that are being built and designed right now, into low Earth orbit," he says.

It's his hope that Gilmour's team of around 30 designers and engineers will give it a competitive edge in the booming marketplace. Without the support of a national space agency, Australia has been languishing in a sort of space dark age. It's been difficult for Gilmour to get its ideas off the ground -- let alone a rocket -- with funding hard to come by and local talent scarce.

With the advent of the Australian Space Agency, Adam tells me that the tide is turning, but it's written all over Gilmour's modest warehouse-turned-headquarters just how much the company has had to scrap and claw to get to this point.

Right now, Australia doesn't even have a launch site.

One goal

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in July 1969, it was an Australian radio telescope that beamed the first images around the globe. You'd be forgiven for thinking Australia stands at the forefront of the space race, but the country has lagged behind in recognizing the huge economic opportunity space presents. Its first space agency was created in 1987 and disbanded nine years later.

Fortunately for companies like Gilmour and a handful of its contemporaries, the Australian government funded the creation of a new space agency in July 2018. Its creation generated a lot of interest in both the mainstream media and the public, with space becoming a critical factor to a healthy economy seemingly overnight.

"The Australian Space Agency has captured the imagination of all Australians," says Karen Andrews, Australia's minister for industry, science and technology. "We're already seeing industry across the country making progress towards establishing launch capability."

gilmourspacetech-17

Rocket science looks a lot like this. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

Yet without a launch site, One Vision's inaugural launch will occur in the middle of a cattle station. The team will need to drive the rocket and its specially designed launch platform 20 hours west, on the back of a flatbed truck, deep into the barren heart of the Australian outback.

Gilmour's rocket launch is subject to strict regulations enforced by the country's Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which makes Gilmour's mission twofold: It needs to clear a series of administrative and insurance hurdles and it needs to aim and launch a rocket at the sky.

If all goes according to plan, One Vision will blast off to approximately 40 kilometers above the Earth, four times higher than a commercial airliner can fly, testing the capabilities of Gilmour's rocket engine and gathering valuable data. In the days prior to launch, Gilmour's small team of 15 or so engineers move around the factory with purpose.

Settling in for our interview, in front of the rocket that carries all his hopes, I ask Gilmour if he's nervous. A tense smile flits across his face.

"You're always nervous before a test," he says.

Gimme One Vision

Gilmour's crowded factory doesn't initially seem like the kind of place fit for building a rocket.

In one corner, behind boxes and shelving, a dark room is embossed with "SSION CONTROL", the letters "M" and "I" having worn away. Steel shipping containers have been transformed into offices, and cluttered overhead are models of NASA space shuttles and capsules, once used by Gilmour as part of the company's astronaut training academy. These relics kickstarted Gilmour's rocket aspirations.

"It gave us a lot of technology in stuff that we would eventually use in space vehicles," says Gilmour.

gilmourspacetech-13

Shipping containers act as offices at Gilmour HQ. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

But the model simulators now lie dormant. After leaving his job as corporate sales head at Citibank in 2015, Gilmour, together with his brother James and wife, Michelle, shifted the company's focus from simulators to spacecraft. Quitting a lucrative job to attack rocket science full time, Adam hoovered up as much information about building rockets as he could. He had no formal qualifications in aerospace engineering. Instead, on long-haul flights, he'd read up on NASA technical papers and rocket propulsion technology.

That entrepreneurial mindset has driven Gilmour since day one. Its "factory" is nothing more than a white garage at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. Its manufacturing facility is full of old chairs and a few kitchen appliances, remnants of its former life as a roadside cafe. And yet, inside lies the heart of Gilmour's operation: a 3D printer that provides the technology for the company's patented rocket fuel.

"We did a lot of development work around the fuel," Gilmour explains without giving much away. "We used techniques such as 3D printing for some of the parts of the rocket, and we developed our own fuel that works really well, and that's what we've been testing."

The fuel is a closely guarded secret, and when we see the 3D printer in action, we're asked to turn off the video camera. We do know, however, that Gilmour's rocket engine is a hybrid technology, using a solid fuel and a liquid oxidizer. When the liquid and solid mix, it creates the thrust necessary to achieve liftoff.

"We've tested the rocket engine five times on the ground, and the combustion efficiency has been great, the stability has been great," Gilmour explains.

One Vision is fitted with just one of Gilmour's hybrid rocket engines, which can generate up to 80 kilonewtons of thrust at launch. For comparison, a single Merlin engine used in SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket boosters generates about 10 times that amount of thrust, at 845 kN.

"In aerospace, it's a good idea to not only do ground tests, where you have the rocket engine fixed to the ground, but to actually put it in a vehicle and see how does it behave in flight."

One launch

The journey from Gilmour's headquarters to the launch site is a mission in and of itself -- and it's already been delayed several times, pushing back One Vision's first flight two months.

Just to be able to get One Vision off the ground, the entire Gilmour team has to travel 20 hours inland. The rocket is loaded directly onto a mobile launch platform and driven 1150 miles west across the barren Australian outback. At this time of year, the temperature hovers around 28 degrees Celsius ( about 83 degrees Fahrenheit).

Trailing on the back of another truck is a shipping container that will eventually become mission control for the launch, full of computers and monitors.

If One Vision does achieve liftoff, Gilmour Space Technologies will be well on the way to achieving another milestone: Building a three-stage rocket dubbed "Eris," it will blast off to low Earth orbit, dropping off small satellites 100 miles (160 kilometers) above the surface. 

"Eris is a three-stage vehicle, so it has three separate stages that fire individual sections," Gilmour explains. "We have designed it to be able to take all of the known small satellites that are being built and designed right now, into space."

The company has started work on Eris, and completion is tentatively scheduled in for 2020.  Ultimately, though, Gilmour's ambitions are even bigger than delivering heavy payloads to orbit -- and those ambitions are obvious if you glance at the company's logo, designed by Gilmour's daughter, showing a rocket blasting off past the moon and Mars, into the infinite dark of the cosmos. In the future, they might launch the kind of rocket that rivals SpaceX, Blue Origin or Rocket Lab's best.

That is, of course, if One Vision -- now slated to launch in late June -- shoots off from a cattle station in the Queensland bush. What are the odds of success? Gilmour invokes one of commercial spaceflight's most successful names when delivering his verdict.

"Elon [Musk] likes to say he has a 50 percent chance of success," he smiles. "I think we're higher than that but, you know, there's always a small chance of failure."

Gilmour knows there's a lot riding on One Vision's first flight. In one flash of light a dream he had for most of his life, he hopes, will finally be realized. His rocket will be going to space.

"Once the engine starts, the motors are very stable, they're pretty bulletproof. So if the engine starts, we're good. We're going up."