InterOrbital Systems (IOS) is — in the words of their website — a "rocket and spacecraft manufacturing company" that locates itself at the Mojave Airport and Spaceport in Mojave, California. They recently announced that they were offering to send people’s personal satellites into low-earth orbit on a NEPTUNE 30 rocket for the low low low cost of $8,000.
So far, IOS has signed up Bob Twiggs, inventor of the breakthrough small satellite, CubeSat (TubeSat’s larger cubic cousin) as a core component in his Kentucky Space/Morehead State University Space Science curriculum, among others.
I spoke with Randa Milliron, CEO of Interorbital Systems via email.
h+: Let’s start with the basic question: What are you guys doing?
RANDA MILLIRON: We’re building a low-cost transportation system from Earth to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond, principally with the Moon as the next logical destination. Let me stress that this is actually a low-cost system — our rocket is not a rehash of a Delta or a kluge of leftover military missile hardware that the manufacturers say will be cheaper just because they want it to be. In reality, the other rockets are still the same intricate and expensive launchers that — by their very complex nature — will never be able to meet our price. We are building an entirely new launch vehicle — one that is the result of a philosophy of radical systems simplification. One that really is low-cost.
The NEPTUNE 30 is an evolved version of the OTRAG (Lutz Kayser, Wernher von Braun, Kurt Debus) launch vehicle design that showed so much promise in the late 1970s. We have a program based on their original work. Our NEPTUNE 30 rocket has been created to carry on their very sound design philosophy and tradition. The launcher is updated and modernized in terms of electronics and computer systems, but the basic tank cluster configuration and the use of storable propellants harks back to Lutz Kayser’s original work. We are lucky enough and honored to have Lutz on the Interorbital team.
Interorbital Systems is the definition of vertical integration. We manufacture our own rocket engines, so we’re not dependent on or held hostage by an outside source for the primary propulsion components of our launch vehicles. We manufacture all guidance, software, tankage and other systems in-house. We not only build, but we launch our own rockets. And we build the satellites. I’d say we’re pretty self-contained and totally independent.
Not only was our rocket fashioned along these lines, but our satellite, the TubeSat, was also designed following the same Minimum Cost Design principles: use COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) products whenever possible; no exotic materials or propellants; use standard industrial manufacturing methods; employ a design policy of system simplification rather than one of increased complexity; no outsourcing of complex expensive hardware. We use no turbo pumps, no ignition system, no complex pressurant systems — this is the sparest and leanest vehicle in the world. Its time has come and it’s a game-changer!
h+: OK, but what I’m really getting at here is that you are offering a "TubeSat PERSONAL SATELLITE KIT" for $8,000. Describe exactly what happens if someone buys a kit. And do they go into their backyards and send a satellite into space, like I, and my friends, used to do with small, homemade hot air floating contraptions powered by candles? Or do you send them up for them?
RM: The scenario goes like this: the builder pays IOS $8000 for the kit/launch combo, builds the kit, sends IOS the completed satellite for testing, inspection, and integration into the NEPTUNE 30 rocket. It is then launched. Lift off is not via your very colorful description of candles or hot air, but with four pillars of fire generating 40,000 pounds of thrust. It launches into a circular 310km polar low-earth-orbit (LEO) from the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga.
When a person buys a kit, ideally he or she has an experiment, task, performance, or other use in mind for the satellite. It’s really for people with a good set of electronics and programming skills, or for those who want to learn and prove their skills in the field. It can be used as a team building exercise or a solitary triumph. It’s the ultimate educational tool that allows the user to do real space-based orbital science at what are (comparatively) dollar store prices. Somehow, the bragging rights of being able to say, “I just sent my first satellite to space and it said hello to me!” are a far better return on investment than most other purchase options.
h+: I’ve seen some skepticism expressed on Slashdot and elsewhere about "sending 8k to some address in the desert."
RM: In Mojave, the winds frequently blow through town at 70 or 80 miles per hour. Nearly everyone uses a post office box to stop the mail from simply blowing away. And where else could you run a rocket R&D program but the desert?
H+ But aren’t you offering to do something that you haven’t proved you can do yet?
RM: Most of the really hard work has already been done, and it only took 14 years! We’ve built the program on a solid foundation of incremental engineering successes in the areas of hot-firing the rocket engines, testing guidance systems and software, and launching sounding rockets to flight-test our hardware and propellants. The radical simplification of systems at play in the NEPTUNE 30 rocket make it possible for IOS to launch a 32-satellite payload for around $250,000 and still make a reasonable profit. The $8,000 price point is, in fact, a confidence builder. We realize that people do not want to risk a $250,000 satellite on an unproven vehicle but $8,000 is a risk most experimenters are willing to take. People must take the leap — take the chance. Where the hell in the world will they ever have a chance to send an experiment to space — and that’s real space — for a price as absurdly low as $8,000? The public has embraced our quest to lower the cost of access to orbit, and the orders are rolling in.
People must take the leap. Where will they have a chance to send an experiment to space for a price as absurdly low as $8,000?
In terms of safeguarding people’s investments, the launch vehicle is being thoroughly tested before attempting to loft anything into orbit. Additionally, we’re running three Common Propulsion Module low-altitude flight tests and an all-up Neptune 30 flight to 50,000 feet before we launch anyone’s precious satellite. There is always risk in spaceflight, but that’s part of the allure. We mitigate that risk through constant testing. By the way, payload space is available on these test flights at $500/kg.
h+: Do you have an estimated initial launch date?
RM: We have four pre-orbital test launches scheduled before the first NEPTUNE 30 orbital launch. We’re beginning the low-altitude flights locally in January. There are a few ground tests remaining, followed by three flight tests of the CPM (Common Propulsion Module) and a fourth test of the all-up vehicle, but with a dummy core and satellite module stage. These are low-altitude flights to 15.25 km. Some of the payload space on these pre-orbital test flights has already been sold. The first orbital (circling the planet) launch with a full component of satellites is scheduled to occur in December of 2010. The actual date will depend upon the results of these initial flight tests.
h+: Tell us about the Synergy Moon project and the new X Prize competition. Also, you guys were slated to participate in the original X Prize competition, to cross the generally recognized boundary into "outer" space. I know you didn’t win, but how did it go?
RM: As far as the original X Prize goes, Rutan was fully funded. Due to our limited resources, we were not able to proceed at the same pace as his group, Scaled Composites. We had a winning design, but our funding restrictions slowed our pace. Securing solid cash flow continues to be the main problem with all commercial space companies.
For the upcoming competition, our Google Lunar X Prize team Synergy Moon is a group of roughly 50 people from 15 countries. Most are artists/scientists/engineers. Two teams, The Human Synergy Project and InterPlanetary Ventures, joined forces and became one team. They asked Interorbital Systems to be their launch provider. We accepted the invitation and have begun work on the test series for the lunar mission with the NEPTUNE 30. So our small sat launcher is a testbed for the larger follow-on vehicles in the NEPTUNE modular series. Our GLXP Moon rocket, the 33-engine NEPTUNE 1000, can lift 1000kg to LEO, or 50kg to the Moon.
h+: What’s up with the Lunar Samples you have on sale? Do you think this sort of speculative offer might turn some people off?
RM: Not at all! Why should it? We want to make it clear that to send a rocket to the Moon is not as difficult as both the industry and the nontechnical public would have you believe. It’s Gerard O’Neill’s concept that once you’re in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), you really are halfway to anywhere in the Solar System. Actually, the most difficult part is getting to LEO and doing it cheaply. In terms of the lunar samples, this type of pre-sale gives the customer a sizable discount for the lunar samples we’ll bring back on the second lunar mission (the Google Lunar X PRIZE is the first, scheduled for Late 2012). These sales fund our lunar programs, both the GLXP and the subsequent mining missions. Interorbital’s ‘speculative’ offer has been embraced by members of the public who have expressed their high confidence in our ability to carry out the task by buying-in to the program — particularly those who wish to give a gift that no one else on Earth will be able to give.
h+: Speaking of Gerard O’Neill, when can humans expect those space resources and space colonies we were sold on during the 1970s?
RM: We have a lunar mining program in the works (thus the lunar samples.) It’s inevitable… untapped riches… and it will be possible within the span of a few years.
We can’t predict the exact date for space colonies because there are too many variables. What I can say is this: no specific date, but it’s in the very near future. If you want more information on our own colony program — called Trans Lunar Research, we have a website. (See Resources)