BRUNSWICK, Maine — In an unidentified quarry somewhere in western Maine next week, a group of space nerds will gather to test a small launch platform.
“In normal words, a rocket,” Sascha Deri of BluShift Aerospace said recently.
The company, built on the founders’ passion for space and space exploration, is building a rocket to send “cube sats” — very small satellites — into space.
The start-up company recently opened an office in Tech Place, an incubator at Brunswick Landing. On Thursday, Deri submitted an application for a $2 million NASA grant, and hopes the funding will help him create a handful of well-paying jobs, to start, in the aerospace industry.
A second career in aerospace began as a childhood fascination with space exploration for Deri, a 45-year-old who grew up in Bucksport, Orland and Brunswick and by day heads up a Massachusetts solar company.
Deri holds two degrees — one in electrical engineering from the University of Southern Maine and another in physics from Earlham College in Indiana. But he acknowledges that neither makes him an expert in aerospace.
“I’d been wanting to create a spacecraft and launch it since I was a kid,” he said. “In 2011 or 2012 I started talking earnestly about it and bought lots of books on ‘how do you make your own rocket,’” he said.
He and his roommate from USM investigated hybrid rocket technology similar to that used in the Virgin Galactic spaceship created by Richard Branson, because the technology is much safer.
They bought software and a milling machine to build parts, but then realized they needed more people — people equally passionate about space.
“I thought, there must be people out there who are nerdy like me about space, but who actually have applicable skills,” he said.
That’s where Spaceflight Innovators was launched. Deri created a public group — invited them for beer and pizza — at his solar company, “to dream, to talk, and see how it goes.”
After the group dwindled to about five true devotees — among them employees of rocket companies, a software developer and someone with experience in 3-D manufacturing, he asked them, “How would you guys like to work with Aaron and me on a rocket?”
That rocket will soon launch cube sats — tiny satellites measuring only about 10 centimeters cubed or multiples of that.
Now the market for space on a rocket includes research institutes, the federal government and even private companies such as Facebook.
With the increased processing power and smaller electronics developed in recent years, “You can do more and more things with electronics, put them in really small spaces and do some really cool things,” he said.
But competition for that space is fierce because so few of them launch — “and once in awhile they explode, as we saw recently with SpaceX,” the rocket that carried a Facebook satellite system that would have provided data communication for the African continent, he said. The waiting list to launch a cube sat into space is now two to three years long.
“That’s the market we’re going after,” he said.
In 2014, the group gathered on Deri’s brother’s farm in North Yarmouth to test a prototype of the rocket engine.
Soon, they’ll join members of a local fire department in a quarry somewhere in western Maine to test the latest version.
While at his brother’s farm that day, Deri said he wondered whether the farm byproducts could be used as a biofuel to launch the rocket. The group tested it, and found the “secret sauce” performed better than petroleum-based fuel — and is carbon-neutral.
“To the best of our knowledge, nobody else is doing it,” he said.
To date, construction of the rocket engine has taken place at Deri’s solar company in Massachusetts. But in the last month, Deri opened his office at Tech Place with an eye toward drawing on the Maine Composites Alliance based there and the carbon composites study program at Southern Maine Community College, located a block from Tech Place, to eventually build the carbon composite fuselage.
The college is “a great source of talent for us in terms of people who can put it together,” Deri said.
“It was a nice convergence of the planets, to use an astronomical metaphor,” he said.
Deri hopes to return to Maine, where his fiancee and family live. Maine also offers “an almost overwhelming number of incentives for businesses to come back to Maine.”
And Brunswick Landing “is perfect for what we need to do — it’s perfect for aerospace companies,” Deri said. “And on top of that, Tech Place has gone out of their way to find a place for us to do engine testing. It turns out the old Naval station is a great place for us to do rocket testing.”
While they work aggressively toward the next test date, Deri is also focused on funding for the project, which to date the partners have financed.
They’ll learn Oct. 22 whether they’ve secured a matching funds grant from the Maine Technology Institute.
And on Thursday, they submitted an application for a $2 million Tipping Point grant from NASA.
While Deri estimates their odds of securing the grant at 1 in 100, doing so would allow them to hire a machinist, an electromechanical engineer and a carbon composites specialist — enough to step up development but not so many employees that they grow too quickly.
The jobs, though, would offer a median salary of $60,000 to $110,000. And one day, he hopes to provide even more of those jobs, maybe up and down the Maine coast.
If they’re not successful with this grant, other opportunities are on the horizon.
“It’s one of my dreams for Maine,” Deri said. “As I was combing through GoogleMaps looking for a place in Maine that would be suitable for launching not dirty, nasty rockets, but smaller rockets that do exploration in space that can be launched safely, I thought, ‘There’s an upside to having big, open spaces. Maybe Washington County. And we’re looking at sea-based launches — a platform out in the ocean. We’re hoping there’s an opportunity down the road to work with the University of Maine.”