Startups Developing DIY, Open Source Spaceflight Technology

Article excerpt

Backyard stargazers dreaming of launching themselves into space will like the direction that modern spaceflight is taking: a hands- on, do-it-yourself approach is emerging to fill the gaps behind large commercial companies such as SpaceX, which in turn inherited the low-Earth orbit role from NASA.

"Right now anyone can design their spacecraft from their home, and with their friends from their homes," said Darlene Damm, co- founder of DIYRockets, via email.

A space company that wants to build an "open space frontier," DIYRockets teamed up earlier this year with Sunglass, a company that builds online collaboration platforms, to create the 3D Rocket Challenge, a contest with a $5,000 prize for the winning team. The goal: design a 3D-printed rocket engine capable of carrying nano- satellites into space, but only using open-source technology.

It's the open source aspect that should intrigue anyone pondering how to build a rocket to the moon from their backyard.

By relying on collaborative technology and inexpensive manufacturing through 3D printing, dreaming about low-cost spaceflight is within the realm of possibility, though still expensive enough that amateur astronauts might have to invest in a startup company.

There's already a precedent, with Copenhagen Suborbitals, a two- man team building their own custom-built rocket, profiled last year in Wired.

But open source technology and future rocket-engine competitions could mean that innovators won't have to custom-build everything.

"All of this will allow people the same freedom and creativity captured by the science fiction writers, but perhaps what they didn't imagine was how collaborative life would be today and how efficient that is for sharing resources," Damm said.

A bare-bones startup company wants to take the philosophy one step further, with an open-source space shuttle.

Florida-based Exosphere is in its early stages and scant on technological details, but the current concept involves a launch vehicle that takes off much like a B-52 airplane but is capable of reaching suborbital space, its founder Zechariah Blanchard said.

The company has already learned the hard way that funding can be difficult. It attempted to raise $100,000 this summer through an Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaign, but didn't even reach $1,000 in commitments. Still, Blanchard is undaunted.

"The goals and milestones may be adjusted to our funding availability, but it will not cease," he wrote in a campaign postscript.

Exosphere does have more than a dozen collaborators, some with NASA experience, who are volunteering for the project until the company can afford to hire full-time scientists and engineers.

"A lot of the people inspired by this project are young," Blanchard said. "Some of the older generation ... are still under the idea it requires a large government entity or a huge corporation to make this happen. …