What does it take to be a rocket scientist and how does a motorsports background help, if at all? Sometimes it seems that gearhead types I meet pop up in a variety of other roles. Maybe it reflects the smalltown atmosphere in New England.
Luke Saindon of Wiscasset is a real rocket scientist. I first met him and Heman Norris when they were students at the University of Maine at Orono in November 2010. They had just founded the UMaine Formula SAE team that designs high-performing racecars.
Caribou Tech Center coworker Keith Dumond and I were on a mission to see if our students might take a small role in building the UMaine Formula SAE car. They eventually built the suspension mounting tabs, suspension mounting rails, inner a-arm inserts and fuel tank.
I want to bring folks up to speed on what Saindon, a Deer Isle native, has been up to since I featured him in Episode 36 of UpNorth Motorsports in December 2014.
I noticed on social media that bluShift Aerospace was getting ready to launch an experimental bio-fueled rocket at the former Loring Air Force in Limestone. While poring through the news and press releases, I noticed a guy who looked familiar. Sure enough, it was Luke Saindon, who is the Senior Mechanical Engineer at bluShift Aerospace headquartered at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
He has been part of the team at bluShift since September 2019.
“I was born in 1990 and raised on Deer Isle, off the coast of Maine, in a wind-powered house,” Saindon said. “Until attending Deer Isle Stonington High School from 2004-08 I was home-schooled. I always had an interest in engineering, which started in the shop helping my father. During high school, I started building small rocket engines, a fascination that still continues.”
Saindon earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering in 2012 from the University of Maine and took several internships to broaden his areas of expertise, ranging from NASA to environmental engineering to working on a farm in France.
“An important part of life has also been art, which I have always been exposed to by taking classes and building sculpture since I can remember,” Saindon said. “My mother always encouraged and facilitated that aspect of my life.
“I believe that engineering and art should work together more closely, and would both benefit as a result. People that combine the two successfully create beautiful work and inspire me,” he said.
Saindon explained that both aspects are important and that many of his art pieces are kinetic sculpture with engineering elements.
Saindon dabbled in Estes rockets, but wanted to try something bigger. In his high school physics class, he sought to earn his Tripoli Level I certification in order to build and fly a high-powered rocket.
“I led a team in my physics class to build a small, three-stage rocket. [I] worked as the draftsman on the team,” he said. “I used Google SketchUp to model the vehicles and then helped the rest of the team follow my plans.”
The project taught Saindon the importance of the airframe center of pressure and center of gravity and how they relate to stability.
“The Tripoli Level I certification rocket went up without a hitch. The smaller class-built rocket failed because one of the booster engines didn’t light, causing off-center thrust,” he said.
In June 2013 he went to work for Mide Technology Corporation, an aerospace and mechanical engineering firm in Woburn, Massachusetts.
Luke was a founding member of Team URSA, a multidisciplinary group that enhances STEM education by designing and fabricating reference designs for suborbital space exploration. In 2016, Team URSA launched a multistage rocket in the Mojave Desert in conjunction with Mavericks Civilian Space Foundation and founder Thomas Atchison, who is like a mentor to Saindon.
Saindon worked as a volunteer for the startup bluShift Aerospace after founder/CEO Sascha Deri reached out to him about a paper Saindon wrote at UMaine about hybrid rocket motors. Deri knew that type of rocket was what his company needed to prove the bio-based fuel he developed might be used as a rocket propellant.
When Saindon successfully wrote a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, he was able to return to Maine and work full time for bluShift.
“We focus our expertise in aerospace, computer science, physics, manufacturing and mechanical design using Scrum framework, keeping bSA light on its feet and quick to adapt,” the company website says. “The result being a rocket developed to have an ultra-efficient nozzle, cutting-edge materials, and stellar fuel performance.”
The group hopes to launch from Loring Air Force Base this month, but the scheduled Jan. 15 launch date was scrubbed due to a low 3,900-foot ceiling. They need 6,000 feet to launch the rocket about one mile vertical.
Saindon also is interested in autocross, having formerly run his 1986 Porsche 944 at Loring during the Cumberland Motor Club Mega Autocross. He had replaced the Porsche turbo engine with a more powerful Chevrolet LS V8. He also raced the car at Blackhawk Farms racetrack in Wisconsin while visiting relatives.
Saindon’s current mode of transportation is a Mercedes box van that has been converted to living quarters. He is looking forward to racing an electric sports car if such a vehicle is made.
He and fellow bluShift mechanical engineer Brook Halvorson also share a love for Formula 1 racing. They compare notes before and after races and talk about the sport.
Saindon said his experience on the UMaine Formula SAE team has been important in his career development.
“Formula SAE made me who I am today. It was instrumental in getting internships and taught me how to work in groups,” he said. “It was great on my resume. Since I started [UMaine Formula SAE] I learned a great deal about leadership.”