Australia’s ticket to space may be nestled on the country’s eastern coast between the cities of Brisbane and Gold Coast. In the town of Pimpama, brothers Adam and James Gilmour have turned an unsuspecting strawberry farm into the headquarters for Gilmour Space Technologies – a company dedicated to advancing humankind’s exploration of space. Intermixed with the baying of a few hungry sheep, you might hear the giggles of inspired children coming from the Gilmour Spaceflight Academy. Further down the road, you might catch the roar of one of the company’s rocket motor tests. Through Gilmour Space Technologies, Adam and James have managed to create Australia’s first space camp experience; design, build and test a hybrid rocket motor; and conduct an in-depth look at the design and test of space habitats for living on Mars. For two former NASA engineers, we felt back in our element and were quick to cheer on the brother’s enthusiastic vision for the future of human spaceflight.
We first met Adam, James, and one their employees, Kabin, for dinner in the beach town of Surfers Paradise. Over the sound of crashing waves Adam revealed the Gilmour Space Technologies vision, “We want to go to the Moon, Mars, and then the stars.” While other private space companies are staking claims in everything from building large rockets to mining asteroids, Gilmour Space Technologies is making their first steps by inspiring the next generation. Over dinner we learned that the Gilmour’s have built up a small facility with motion-based simulators, space vehicle mock-ups, a mission control facility, and even a multi-axis trainer which spins and tumbles participants like an out-of-control spacecraft. And while attendees at the Gilmour Spaceflight Academy can experience what it is like to train and execute a space mission, a team of the corporation’s engineers is building a prototype rocket motor to soon send small payloads to the edge of space and beyond. And the long-term future? Kabin, a recent graduate of Singapore University of Technology and Design, is working on that with his team’s design of a prototype Mars habitat that will be built and tested by Gilmour Space Technologies. As we wrapped up our dinner, James promised us “We’ve got a full day for you tomorrow.” We could hardly wait.
Gilmour Spaceflight Academy
The first thing you see walking into the headquarters of Gilmour Space Technologies is a mock-up of a Mercury capsule. It stands as an ode to the early days of space travel and the pioneering spirit alive at Gilmour. A second floor classroom overlooks a model of the first stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket next to a mock-up of the Chinese Shenzhou capsule. An open hatchway on the Rigel spacecraft, the Gilmour’s own take on a future human-rated capsule, beckons visitors to climb inside while rows of fighter jet simulators hint at the ace-like skills needed before catching a ride into the cosmos. This is the Gilmour Spaceflight Academy where students and adults can experience the rigors of spaceflight from training to conducting a simulated space mission.
In the far corner of the Academy you can see the flicker of computer monitors. It’s a mission control room for supporting simulations in a second, movable Rigel mock-up. Sitting next to the control room, a vertical wall is being built up for participants to try their hand at multitasking during simulated space walks. Even a small space plane simulator is being constructed to offer yet another mission experience for those visiting the former strawberry farm. The Academy may seem like a playground for space enthusiasts, but its potential is far greater than that – it could change someone’s life.
A life-changing experience at a space camp may seem a bit extreme, but with both of us former graduates of the Advanced Space Academy in Huntsville, Alabama, we can attest to its power. For James, it was serving as an Emergency, Environmental, and Consumables Management (EECOM) flight controller in a simulated mission control that re-vectored his career interest from aviation to spaceflight. It also amazingly foretold one of his future roles at NASA, where he supported 18 space shuttle missions as an EECOM flight controller in NASA’s Mission Control Center. For Jayleen, her space camp experience was a reaffirmation of her desire to one day serve as an astronaut. The experience maintained her laser focus on the fields of math and science in school where she continually excelled. And we suspect Gilmour Space Technologies will add to stories like these through their Spaceflight Academy.
During our visit, we were fortunate enough to play a small role in one of the inaugural Spaceflight Academy experiences. The Rigel spacecraft stood at the ready as 5 young souls walked into Gilmour Space Technologies with nervous smiles. This young team was about to launch the Rigel and a small crew into orbit. None of them had experienced anything like this before. Nervous grins gave way to a look of confident and excited determination as the selected Rigel crew zipped up in their bright orange launch suits and climbed inside the capsule. Meanwhile, Jayleen and I joined the ranks in Rigel mission control with two other youngsters.
After a brief run through the countdown script and checks of our communications with the capsule crew, the team was ready. We conducted a quick “Go/No-Go” poll of the mission control team and the verdict was in: Rigel was ready for launch. T-minus 5…4…3…2…1…the large display in mission control showed a flash of fire and Rigel rising atop a column of smoke. We may have caught a suppressed smile or two from the cameras beaming images of our brave crew, but they were quick to change to steely-eyed focus. “Go at throttle-up,” the young Booster officer called out after a gentle prompt from her father that her part of the script was up. While this was just another day of simulations at the Gilmour’s Spaceflight Academy, for a split moment, it was real to these kids. They were learning to be a part of something far bigger than themselves. And perhaps it is this kind of learning Gilmour Space Technologies hopes to build upon as they may one day recruit the very youngsters they first inspired. In the end, the smiles say it all.
Rocket Test Program
While Gilmour Space Technologies is inspiring the next generation of intrepid explorers, they are also building the future that they may one day participate in. While we toured the Spaceflight Academy and supported the successful launch of Rigel from mission control, a team of engineers was busy preparing for a real display of rocket propulsion.
For decades, NASA and many private aerospace companies have used either liquid or solid fuels for launching payloads into space. Each has their benefits and drawbacks from storability to thrust produced to overall system complexity. In recent years, some companies have begun experimenting with the use of hybrid rocket motors to combine the best attributes of both solid and liquid propellants. Further, with advances in additive manufacturing (a.k.a. ‘3-D printing’), there’s promise of more efficient and affordable methods of launching rockets. Gilmour Space Technologies is experimenting in this area as they are building a hybrid motor using a 3-D printed solid fuel.
After a short drive from the Pimpama strawberry farm into the countryside, we were ready to watch the Gilmour’s engineering team in action. We found a hybrid rocket motor on its side, strapped to a secured trailer; its nozzle pointing toward a small barren slope covered in sheet metal. This is where garage start-up meets real rocket science. As Jamie and Stu, propulsion engineers at Gilmour, ran through their pre-test check, they realized they were missing a suitable igniter. Introduce some Aussie innovation, and one metal twist-tie, and a make-shift igniter was born. We escorted ourselves to the nearby bunker – a convenient outcropping of rocky granite – and listened to our second countdown of the day. Three…two…one…and with a hiss and pop Gilmour Space Technologies’ hybrid rocket motor came to life. Blinding orange flames accompanied a thunderous roar as the motor burned for 15 glorious seconds. Cheers and high-fives punctuated the evening as soon as the final ember shot from the rocket and it sputtered to a stop. The test was very successful. And while the motor in its current form couldn’t launch a payload into space, it was a defining moment for the Gilmour Space Technologies team as their shared dream was taking a very real form. As their design work progresses, they hope to first incorporate their hybrid motor in sounding rockets which will be sent to the farthest reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, supporting experiments from universities and other researchers. From inspiration to reality, space is becoming tangible in Pimpama.
To the Stars
So what does Gilmour Space Technologies have planned in the coming years? “I really want to see us testing closed-loop life support systems,” Adam shared with us. We nodded in agreement as robust life support systems are crucial to humankind’s journey deeper in space. While NASA and its partners are continually demonstrating such systems on the International Space Station, they have yet to achieve a truly ‘closed’ system. A closed system means that all matter needed for sustaining human life can be enclosed in a spacecraft without constant reliance on logistical supply chains from Earth. This means waste water is recycled, carbon dioxide is removed, and food is generated in a way that limits demand on re-supply ships. Why is that necessary? If we we want to become a spacefaring species that travels to Mars and beyond, we must no longer be reliant on Earth but be capable of living independently from our home planet. The Gilmour’s hope to fill this gap by designing and testing a prototype Mars habitat right in Pimpama. Gradually including more advanced life support systems, they will put the habitat through its paces, learning along the way. Attendees of the Gilmour Space Technologies’ Spaceflight Academy may one day contribute to the habitat design as members of a test crew simulating living on Mars.Having worked for a combined 28 years at NASA, we’ve seen a number of companies make their debut in the space industry. It’s exciting to see such enthusiasm coupled with innovative ways of doing business. We’re eager to see how the journey unfolds for Gilmour Space Technologies. From rockets to habitats, they’re bound to put the little town of Pimpama on the space exploration radar, inspiring others along the way. And that’s the piece that makes the former strawberry farm really stand out to us – the Gilmour’s are starting their company to educate and inspire while also demonstrating tangible progress towards making dreams reality. It is that unique combination that makes us think we’ll see Gilmour Space Technologies exploring among the stars shortly.