Since 2009, Daudi Barnes and his team at Advanced Mobile Propulsion Test has offered state-of-the art testing facilities for rocket engines on a 2-acre site east of the Durango-La Plata County Airport.
Now, Barnes has started a new company, Agile Space Propulsion, to design and manufacture his own rocket engines using the advances in 3D printing and the access to his existing testing facility to design, develop, test and bring to market thrusters, small maneuvering engines, used in rockets.
Barnes said SpaceX, a company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, has successfully met one of its main goals, to cut the cost of a rocket launch in half. Other private companies have been spurred by SpaceX to develop cheaper rockets, and with that comes an increasing need for thrusters, Barnes said.
In addition, he said the increasing miniaturization of electronics also is helping boost demand for space vehicles for everything from telecommunications, scientific research, defense and even space tourism.
“Cost reductions have opened up opportunities,” Barnes said. “People are saying: ‘Wow, if all of this is more affordable, we can do more missions now.’”
Barnes’ new firm has already developed a 100-pound thruster, and it is currently developing a 5-pound thruster.
The trend in rocket launches is toward smaller missions with a more focused payload to reduce the risk. Improving technology is making rockets and their payloads lighter and cheaper, and all that is increasing demand for space vehicles.
“Weight is everything in space. It costs $1 million to put 1 kilo on the face of the moon. If you can make a spacecraft half a kilo lighter, you’re saving a ton of money,” said Barnes, who worked on the Space Shuttle engines and moved to Durango from Los Angeles to escape the congestion.
Ten years ago, 3D printing could be used only with plastics and polymers, but now the rapidly advancing field is using metals. Barnes is taking advantage of that in the design, development and manufacturing of his thrusters, which are smaller engines in a rocket used to position a vehicle in space.
Barnes said he does not know of any other company using 3D printing to make thrusters, but he suspects some are doing it because the benefits are obvious. Larger companies, he said, are using 3D printing to make the larger booster engines that put a rocket in space.
“In traditional manufacturing, there are a lot of steps, a lot of parts, and there are restrictions on what you can do. For instance, you can drill a straight hole, but you can’t drill a curved hole,” he said.
3D printing is more flexible and eliminates the number of steps and parts that go into manufacturing a thruster.
“The end product is more sophisticated, more capable and lighter, and that’s a really big thing,” he said.
In addition, he said 3D printing takes only a fraction of the time to build an engine compared with traditional manufacturing methods.
“I can print in one day something that took months to make. Just the time savings alone is a big cost-saver,” he said.
Already, Barnes said he has developed a prototype thruster for a NASA lunar lander that had spent years in development under conventional manufacturing techniques without making satisfactory progress.
Barnes said when NASA gave him the go-ahead to work on the project, in nine weeks he had a prototype that was performing better than the engine that had been in development for years.
The ability to quickly move from design and engineering to development and testing, he said, comes from a combination of his use of 3D printing with the access to his existing rocket engine testing facility.
The combination allows him to make changes and tweaks to his designs and test them rapidly.
“We use 3D printing, but the other part we have is the testing facility,” he said.
“We can learn a lot when we test here. We’re uniquely diagnostic. We have very specific equipment that gives you detailed information and more certainty in the information you’re getting.
“We are also focused on a quick turnaround. You can get back to an engine, modify it and quickly retest.”
One factor that led Barnes to form a new company to handle the design of his thrusters is a failure to land several NASA grants to develop his technology because his operation was largely viewed as a testing facility and not a rocket engine design house.
Creating a private company to design his thrusters also allows Barnes to seek venture capital.
The company is currently self-financed and it has a $250,000 grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
With his board of directors and industry partners in place, Barnes is looking for $500,000 from investors to fund for business development.
The money would go toward marketing to spread the word about his engines in the telecommunication, earth-imaging and defense fields and to attract venture capitalists for future funding. He’s also looking to hire a CEO for the firm.
Barnes has handled CEO duties so far, but he said, “I’m an engineer. It takes a different kind of person to be a CEO.”
The company currently has five full-time employees, three part-time employees and it works with numerous contractors.
After business development is complete, Barnes said he will look to attract $5 million for capital to further enhance the ability of Agile Space Propulsion to produce thrusters.
“We’re sort of like a seed that’s planted, and we’re hoping it will take root and we will be able to grow it and sustain it,” he said.