Astronaut Sid Gutierrez comments on SpaceX loss September 1st and the future of rocket technology
First I want to thank the pioneers at SpaceX for leading the way in space commercialization and express our regrets for their loss last Thursday. It is a tribute to their professionalism that there were no injuries.
As an astronaut I have long had a personal and professional interest in the safety of space launch systems. I served as a liaison between NASA and the Challenger Presidential Commission, was a member of the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) and provided testimony to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board relative to crew escape. Every year I served on the ASAP we recommended that NASA add an effective crew escape system to the Space Shuttle.
My greatest frustration as an astronaut was that decades after landing on the Moon, we were still constrained to working in low earth orbit. And the work there was limited. Nothing like the activity envisioned when I was young. Why is that still true today? I have always attributed this to the lack of safe, reliable and affordable access to space. What would a solution to this problem look like? Ideally the rocket would be non-explosive. (Yes, It is possible.) It would be simple with few moving parts. And it would be built mainly by machines with minimal touch labor. Based on my experience flying on both solid rocket motors and liquid rocket engines, I concluded the ideal rocket propulsion system would be a hybrid. In a hybrid rocket the fuel exists as a solid and the oxidizer is stored as a liquid. They can only combine and burn through the function of the rocket itself, not by accident. This makes them inherently much safer than either solids – where the fuel and oxidizer exist together – or liquids where they are stored in separate tanks but exist as liquids and can easily combine destructively in the event of an anomaly. In addition, hybrids have only a few moving parts – usually valves. They are inherently simple and therefore more reliable than their much more complex liquid engine counterparts that are usually fitted with turbo pumps turning at thousands of rpms and extensive plumbing often including actively cooled nozzles.
When I retired as an astronaut I searched for a hybrid rocket that would meet these expectations. I wanted to help change the way we access space making it safe and routine. But the hybrids I found all suffered from various deficiencies including inconsistency, combustion instability and excessive vibration. Then, several years ago, I found a company that had solved these problems. This company took advantage of advances in additive manufacturing technology to very precisely print their fuel grains using a patented 3D printing process. By then carefully selecting a fuel with a higher modulus, they eliminated these problems. And they had the test data to prove their rocket motor worked. I joined the company!
Today I am the CEO of this Company – Rocket Crafters – and we are dedicated to revolutionizing space by prioritizing safety, reliability and affordability ahead of performance. We have designed a vehicle that has a “0” TNT equivalency when fully fueled sitting on the pad. Each engine has only two moving parts – valves. There are no turbo pumps. The fuel is a proprietary formulation of ABS – the material LEGO bricks are made from. The oxidizer is Nitrous Oxide or laughing gas. We use no cryogenics, so we have neither cryogenic tanks nor cryogenic fueling. We use no hypergolic fuels – no hydrazine. In fact the vehicle has no explosives. It is actually an environmentally friendly launch system. `We ensure quality control by printing each fuel grain very precisely on an advanced additive manufacturing machine with minimal touch labor.
As you can see this a radically different approach to building a rocket. You might even say it is “Not Rocket Science.” It requires discipline to prioritize safety, reliability and affordability ahead of performance. But we believe the requirements have changed and this is the way to make space access truly safe and routine – to open space commercialization to all the applications only imagined until now.
Rocket Crafters CEO