LIMESTONE, Maine — The small team at Brunswick-based bluShift Aerospace will come one step closer to its dream of reaching the Alpha Centauri star system when it launches the Stardust 1.0 rocket at Limestone’s former Loring Air Force base next week.
The launch will mark two historic firsts — the first commercial launch of a rocket powered by bio-derived fuel in the world, and the first commercial rocket launch in Maine.
The crew were on the Loring runway on Jan. 15, braving the cold temperatures and fully expecting a successful launch, but cloudy skies prevented the workers from getting the go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration. They have since tentatively rescheduled the launch for Wednesday, Jan. 20.
“We might have done our jobs perfectly, but Mother Nature can prevent us from launching, and this is normal,” bluShift CEO Sascha Deri said. “The FAA requires a certain amount of cloud covering, or lack thereof, before you can launch. So it is what it is.”
The FAA needs notification an hour prior to launch, another 15 minutes prior, and then a final one just after the launch is complete.
When the rocket, which is 20 feet tall, 14 inches in diameter and weighs about 650 pounds, takes off, Deri said spectators will hear a noise as it clears the rail. He said it should take the rocket almost two seconds to build up enough velocity to exit the 72-foot rail.
“It’s like a bottle rocket, but on steroids,” he said.
And upon the successful launch of this rocket, bluShift plans to tap into academic and civil research markets and to hire 40 more employees to add to their current roster of 10 within the next five years.
“And when I say academic, I mean all the way down to students who are 10-12 years old, all through post-graduate to professors. What we learned after going to a number of conferences and interviewing over 40 customers was that there was no small dedicated rocket launcher that would carry one or two payloads for these people. So they were stuck going with these very large rockets,” he said.
The CEO hopes that bluShift will accommodate the needs of clients looking for a launch of just one to three payloads. On Friday, the rocket had one academic and two commercial customer payloads on board, containing an array of materials ranging from a CubeSat prototype to Dutch wafer cookies.
Companies like SpaceX and ULA (United Launch Alliance) could be likened to freight trains while a company like Rocket Lab could be compared to a bus line.
“And we’re going to be the Uber of space,” he said.
Deri said this market is relatively untapped, likely because of the costs associated with small launches.
“We believe we have a solution to those costs, both in our rocket engine design, our methodology and by launching here in Maine, that allows us to minimize our costs enough that we can launch profitably.”
bluShift plans to tap into both suborbital and low-earth orbit flights. The suborbital flights will involve reaching zero gravity for up to six minutes. Orbital flights will utilize their Red Dwarf rocket, which will launch cubesats (miniature satellites used for research) into low-earth orbit.
He said the key for hitting low-earth orbit will be taking advantage of Maine’s coastline, which faces due south.
“There is nowhere else on the eastern seaboard where you can do this,” he said. “We can launch into polar orbit, not north to the North Pole, but we can launch over the ocean without flying over people, people’s houses or property.”
“We lucked out,” he said.
But the company’s ambitions don’t end there. Deri said its long-term objective is to become the first to launch a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri Proxima — the nearest star system.
“That’s literally a star shot,” he said. “But we plan to do it by building on top of a sustainable, profitable business that’s employing people here in Maine. And what I really hope is that we demonstrate that Maine is not just about blueberries, fantastic beer, potatoes and lobster, but that we’re also a great place to work in a technical industry such as aerospace.”
And this goal is even reflected in the company’s name.
“When a star is moving toward you, it blue shifts, and the light looks a little bluer,” he said. “So it’s a nerdy way of saying we want to move closer to the stars.”
The company’s mission is also an extension of Deri’s childhood ambition and fascination with space.
“I remember reading books about astronauts when I was in the first grade,” he said. “I was born just after the Apollo era and that really sets the mood for what you expect from the future. And I have to say I was a little bit frustrated by how we here in this country never really went far beyond the space shuttle program. My thought was that we’d firmly be well beyond the moon by now, and exploring.”
But for now, Deri is optimistic that Jan. 20 will bring clear skies.
“While it’s certainly a real bummer that we won’t be able to launch [Friday], I think the team feels good that we have everything technical in place and lined up. We’re confident that when it opens up again we’re going to be there. We’re ready for launch.”
He was also amazed at the Jan. 15 turnout, not only with in-person spectators coming from across the state and beyond, but the thousand-plus viewers online.
“I think there was a lot of warmth on this cold day, just in the support we’ve had from the population — from the public here in Maine to those who came to visit virtually,” he said.