LIMESTONE, Maine — The small crew of about eight at bluShift Aerospace made world history when their proprietary, non-toxic, bio-derived, carbon-neutral fuel launched a rocket a mile into the sky on Jan. 31 at the former Loring Air Force Base.
Now that the 650-pound $1 million rocket named the Stardust 1.0 has passed its first real test, bluShift hopes to focus on smaller-scale launches with limited payloads. CEO Sascha Deri said that while companies like SpaceX could be likened to freight trains, he wants to see bluShift become “the Uber of space.” As the company serves its commercial clients, students and researchers with more successful smaller payload launches, it moves closer to its long-term objective of becoming the first to launch a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri Proxima — the nearest star system.
The company’s success may also pave the way for the Loring Commerce Centre to become a regular launch site for small rockets. bluShfit, an affiliate member of the Maine Space Grant Consortium, hopes the launch will help establish Loring, and Maine as a whole, as a viable location for the aerospace industry.
“We’ve put Limestone on the world map,” Seth Lockman, bluShift communications director, said. “We’re really excited to have played a part in raising awareness for the SpacePort.”
The SpacePort Maine project began in 2017 through the Maine Space Grant Consortium’s efforts to utilize the state’s existing Cold War infrastructure for aerospace activity. Its goal is for small rocket launches, either from planes or launch pads, that would reach sub orbit and polar low-Earth orbit to take place on sites such as the Loring Commerce Centre and Brunswick Landing — both former military bases.
The bluShift team will thoroughly inspect the rocket’s condition to determine whether it can fly again, although the skin and fins of the rocket appear to be in great condition, Lockman said. The review could be done as soon as Feb. 12, Deri said.
The rocket hit nominal altitude and speed and landed in a nominal zone during flight, but the main parachute deployed “just a hair early,” Lockman said.
Most of the company’s initial objectives have been achieved — mainly the power of their bio-derived fuel in flight and the use of rockets for smaller payloads, he said.
The company’s next step will be to open up to a round of investment and raise money to build a new engine and create the Stardust 2.0.
“The engine in the Stardust [1.0] is highly experimental,” he said. “It’s much thicker than a rocket engine would be. There’s steel in there, and that’s all to withstand the weather. There are all kinds of things a test motor needs that would be much more than an off the assembly line flight motor.”
He said they want the Stardust 2.0 to go faster, and to be able to reach the Karman line — the boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and outer space.
bluShift’s exact path from here depends on the final inspection of the Stardust 1.0.
“But needless to say, we can’t stop now,” Lockman said. “There will be another launch, many more launches, and we plan to go higher each time until we hit our service ceiling. Things are going to keep getting bigger, faster and better, or like the Olympic motto — Citius, Altius, Fortius [faster, higher, stronger].”
The Jan. 31 launch came after numerous delays for additional testing and a postponement due to excessive cloud cover. On launch day, the early morning temperatures of about 14 degrees below zero affected the equipment, causing additional delays. And two other launch attempts just before noon failed because the main valve was under-pressurized in one case and the ignition fluid ran out in the other.
The tension in the air was palpable when the rocket sat motionless on the launch tower for a few moments at the end of the countdown during the third attempt around 3 p.m.
And then the Brunswick-based startup made world history. The 20-foot rocket took to the skies in what appeared to be a flawless launch.
Lockman was running a livestream and audio mixer at the time, and said it resulted in a moment of overwhelming catharsis amongst the crew.
“I had total tunnel vision because I was trying to not only do the livestream, but also work out some technical issues,” he said.
As the launch started, he turned down the engineers’ mic and turned his mic up, but the adjustments didn’t register in time. Lockman’s mic remained muted and the engineers’ mic stayed on. When the rocket cleared the tower, one of the engineers shouted an expletive, unable to control his excitement at witnessing the culmination of more than six years of research and development materialize in the skies above.
“That went out to 4,000 people across the world,” Lockman said. “Everyone was going nuts. It was this beautiful, candid moment. Everybody was just hooting and hollering.”
Life for bluShift has been a madhouse since August, with the team preparing to show their new proprietary fuel to the world, Lockman said. But since the launch, they’ve had a chance to rest.
“[Deri] gave the engineers a couple days off, which they definitely deserved,” Lockman said.
Lockman said he finally reached the bottom of his inbox on Wednesday afternoon, three days after the launch. The event put an enormous spotlight not only on bluShift, but on Limestone as well.
The launch was covered by international news outlets including the Associated Press and BBC News.
“I couldn’t believe it when I got an email in my inbox from a BBC reporter,” he said. “I’ve watched, read and listened to all three of their reports and I still can’t believe that it’s happened. BBC is the biggest there is. I feel like I’ve peaked already.”
The crew was especially excited to be covered by space.com.
“Our engineers are now reading about themselves and our mission and company at space.com, which is usually where we go to read about other people,” he said. “It’s taking a lot of recalibrating to adjust.”
Lockman said much of the credit for Stardust 1.0’s success goes to senior mechanical engineer Luke Saindon and lead test engineer Brook Halvorson, who built much of the rocket.
“It’s a real testament not only to Sascha’s vision, but to the team he assembled and what they can do, and I think we’re just seeing the start of what Maine talent can do. This is just the beginning of what bluShift, and what Maine, can do,” Lockman said.