Seeing their own ingenuity at work, employees at a Maine composites company cheered as a NASA lunar spaceship survived a recent test flight.

Fiber Materials Inc. of Biddeford developed an essential component of Ascent Abort-2, the safety system aboard the Orion spaceship, which is expected to bring humans to the moon in 2024. FMI has worked on about half a dozen NASA projects, said Kate Whitney, FMI’s marketing communications manager, including work on the heat shield for the Mars 2020 rover mission.

“Watching that live and hearing people cheering and how good everyone felt that this test is successful,” she said of the July 2 flight. “For us culturally, it adds an element of excitement for the people working here to see that the work they are creating is literally creating a world difference.”

While the nation is transfixed this week as events mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight, there are some businesses in Maine working on the future of space exploration.

For the Orion, FMI developed a steering component that helps guide an astronaut escape capsule away from the spaceship in the case of rocket failure.

Mark Lippold, development manager for FMI, said NASA was looking at ways to increase the thrust of the capsule to clear a rocket failure, a process which entailed testing composite materials in the motor assembly for increased exposure to high temperatures. FMI developed the material and parts in-house. 

He emphasized when humans are involved in a project, the technology needs to be absolute.

“It’s mission critical,” Lippold said.

An employee of Fiber Material Inc. sets up a test sample at the company’s Biddeford plant. FMI has worked on about a half dozen NASA projects and is prohibited from discussing details about on-going projects, or even identifying employees in photos because of security concerns. Photo courtesy of Fiber Materialls Inc.

Orion is designed for deep space exploration, hopefully the moon, in 2024. NASA has not set foot on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. NASA has developed multiple safety abort systems since the 1960s, but Orion’s launch abort system is far more technologically advanced, according to NASA’s website.

Lippold estimates that about 10 percent of FMI’s work is with NASA, 5 percent is commercial and 85 percent is with the United States Department of Defense. For national security reasons, projects with the DOD cannot be publicly discussed, but the NASA project was nationally televised. 

“I think culturally when we work on NASA programs they have a lot of external visibility,” Lippold said. “When we do things like Mars Science Lab or Mars 2020 and it’s televised, and you get some level of community feedback of positivity, I think it’s always uplifting to the workforce.”

The company hopes to hire 200 new workers by the end of 2020, doubling its current size.

ROCKET SCIENCE

FMI is not the only business in Maine working on space exploration. BluShift Aerospace, a small startup located at the Brunswick Landing, recently was awarded a $125,000 grant from NASA. The grant will  help the research and development of its project MAREVL: Modular Adaptable Rocket Engine for Vehicle Launch.

The money will help bring on two new employees. Currently, the company has eight employees who are all working less than full time on the project. Previous funding has come from employees themselves and a grant the company received from MIT

According to Sascha Deri, CEO of bluShift Aerospace, the MAREVL engine will be more cost-effective and safer than the standard rocket engine. The idea is the engine uses a liquid oxidizer, simplified plumbing and a special solid fuel: biofuel. 

Biofuel is a type of carbon neutral energy source that is derived from organic materials like plants. The biofuel is safer because it does not continuously combust, unlike typical rocket fuel which works more like a firework: Once the explosion begins, there is no stopping it. As Deri put it, their fuel is so safe you could eat it. Additionally, the biofuel formula the company has developed is much cheaper than the standard rocket fuel, which reduces overall project cost. 

“We want to create the Toyota Corolla of rocket engines,” Deri said. 

BluShift wants to use its hybrid engine to lower the cost of launching miniature satellites called CubeSats into space. CubeSats are used for research in low orbit – between 400 and 1,000 miles above Earth’s surface. Currently, the base price for launching a CubeSat varies, usually between $50,000 and $100,000 per kilogram of the CubeSat payload, Deri said. Because of the cheaper costs of its fuel and a simplified engine design, bluShift expects to lower that price to around $20,000 per kilogram, Deri said. 

Deri hopes bluShift will function as a shuttle service for CubeSats, with the company’s rockets transporting multiple CubeSats in a single launch in four to five years. By then, the company hopes to have hired 40 more employees, it said in a news release.

“We have a real opportunity here in Maine to do aerospace, from innovating the CubeSats … to rocket companies coming up to be able to launch these satellites, and soon, hopefully, a space board to launch it and do it all here in Maine,” he said. “The market just for us to launch these satellites to space is supposed to be over $60 billion by 2030 … we want those jobs to be here in Maine.” 

 


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