James Gilmour, director, Gilmour Space Technologies

When you are pioneering something that’s never been done before, you have to take that onus of responsibility to ensure it's being done in a safe and proper way ...

Did you know Australia has a thriving space technology industry? Until recently, we didn’t either. Since the advent of privately funded commercial space companies, Australia has seen a boom in start-ups that have their eyes turned to the stars. Gilmour Space Technologies is one such Queensland-based venture, founded by brothers James and Adam Gilmour with the aim of providing a low-cost option for orbital launches. The company is on track to launch its hybrid rocket propulsion system in 2020, which will give smaller companies an avenue to delivering nano-satellites of their own into space. Before that date arrives, the brothers are stopping in at Myriad 2018 to speak on a panel dedicated to the advancement of space technology. We gave James a ring to get the low-down on their project, and also glean some insight on the state of Australia’s burgeoning space-tech industry.

A lot of kids grow up with a fascination with space, with many wanting to become astronauts. We’re you similarly obsessed?
Obviously I have a skewed opinion on it, but how could one not be in love with the science or the fascination associated with space and space technology? I grew up in a family of die-hard Star Wars and Star Trek fans and that helped shape how I felt about technology. It’s great to see some of the technology they explored – like Google Glass – coming to fruition.

Take me to the point when Gilmour Space Technologies became a reality. Your background and expertise – and that of your brother Adam – was quite removed from this field of work. Where did this idea come from?
Seven tenths of the law is having a passion and ability to overcome obstacles at any cost. I wouldn’t be able to do this without my brother – it’s been great to work with him on this really innovative venture, but I guess what started it was the current ‘space renaissance’. The renaissance was started by successful business people like Paul Allen, Robert Bigelow, Richard Branson and most recently Elon Musk. There has been a fundamental shift from a government focus on space to more of a consumer-based or business-oriented engagement with space technology. I think humanity is starting to see the fruit of their labour and we looked to take a page from that book and help pave the way for Australia to have domestic launch capability.

When you started the company, what was the key focus that you wanted to bring to the market?
There were two initiatives, or ideas, at the beginning. How I conceptualise it is, what NASA did to America in the 60s, we’re trying to do to Australia in the new millennium. We started an initiative called Spaceflight Academy, which was essentially astronaut training. We had a lot of high-fidelity simulators, replicas and mock-ups and a program that was conducive to proper astronaut training – as real as it gets. We ran that for a while, while we were concurrently working on a propulsion program, but it got to a point where we had to choose which way we wanted to go. So, we put the space camp on hold and now principally focus on hybrid rocket propulsion development.

I have no concept how one would consider starting a company based on that sort of concept. How did the project get off the ground, so to speak?
I guess a lot of it starts with an initial idea or concept and having the ability to see that through. It also helps when you have some financial backing as well! I think there’s obviously some big hurdles with the fundamental tech associated with the propulsion systems, so from that we’ve brought some individuals into the fold who have helped us start and grow to where we are today.

So, let me break down the key focus – Gilmour Space Technology aims to provide low-cost access to space to aid in the distribution of smaller payloads. Is that the crux of what you’re working towards?
Exactly, and I think (the idea) comes from a problem. The problem stems from access or the inability to get to space. We’re seeing a lot more companies or institutions that are looking at small satellite capability. Traditionally, small satellites were only able to get access through ride-shares and they were typically high cost, limited access, had long wait times and a lack of control. We wanted to reduce the bottleneck by providing a bus, if you will, to get a range of payloads into orbit.

In terms of reducing the cost, what are some of the areas of space technology that are prohibitive to smaller outfits looking to get their tech to space?
I think fundamentally it comes down to our choice of technology, and we have chosen the platform of the hybrid rocket. Traditionally, rockets are either solid or liquid fuelled and we think a lot of factors that go into the production of our hybrid rockets are conducive to being low cost. What I mean by that is, we don’t have to cryogenically store our oxidiser, we don’t need very expensive things called turbo pumps and some of the infrastructure around that choice of technology we can avoid, which is important when you’re trying to be a low-cost competitor.

I’m guess that the spectrum of clientele that would use this low-cost technology would be quite broad. What sort of organisations would this service be of most benefit to?
What we’re doing will affect domestic and international players or partners. Domestically we’re looking at Fleet Space and Myriota – both based in Adelaide – and obviously Defence is looking at access to space, so we want to support that. But in terms of the broader range of customers, there are a number of companies looking at options for constellation satellite broadband and things, including OneWeb, Orbcomm and SpaceX, who all need access to space and we’re hoping they’ll get a ticket on our bus. We actually have letters of intent from a number of major players already.

The year 2020 is a major point that you’re working towards for eventual project completion. What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to get to this point?
Look, I think challenge is a relative term. We’ve had to overcome a number of hurdles to get where we are today. One was access to capital and we were successful securing that last year, which has really helped us continue our development. We’re going through another phase now, ensuring we have all the right tools and the people for the job, which has also been a challenge that I think we’ll overcome. I think dealing with red tape is also problematic, but that being said, when you are pioneering something that’s never been done before, you have to take that onus of responsibility to ensure it’s being done in a safe and proper way.

What are some of the exciting milestones you’re looking to hit between now and completion?
The first one is probably securing the next round of investment, and my brother is doing a great job meeting with potential supporters in terms of capital investment. We’ve got a few tech milestones that we’re looking to achieve and overcome in the next three to six months, one being a longer duration burn. Then we will be looking at an orbital insertion vehicle so we’ll be investigating the requirements for that, and were also looking to launch a sounding rocket capability technology demonstrator in the next six months. So, there are some cool things to look forward to ahead.

In terms of being pioneers, it might come as news to many that there is a thriving space technology industry within Australia. What is the scene like at the moment?
If you had asked me ten years ago, I’d have said there was little-to-no space activities apart from peripherals in Australia. I definitely think the winds have changed. In the last five years there have been a number of start-ups who have come into the fold and stated their intentions for various areas of focus. Australia has had a history in getting to space, but in terms of design and development of a propulsion system I don’t believe that has been explored in Australia before, and coupled with our hybrid rocket technology I think we are the first of our kind in Australia.

There’s even talk of getting our own Space Agency like NASA in the not too distant future. What have you heard about that?
Yeah, the expert review group has submitted their white paper to parliament, who will be making an announcement imminently. Hopefully there’s some decent funding that supports it!

On the note of space agencies, Gilmour Space Technology recently inked an agreement with NASA, which must be huge! What does the deal entail?
Yeah, that’s another significant achievement for us, to be able to work with NASA who are pioneers and led the original space race. It’s not a contract, it’s an agreement that enables us to explore other potential future activities in areas of mutual interest. That includes space transportation, propulsion, in-situ resource utilisation, sustainability and life support systems, things like that. It’s really exciting.

You and your brother will be speaking at Myriad 2018 this month – what sort of topics are you hoping to touch on?
We’re certainly excited to be apart of Myriad. We’re speaking on a panel with a space context and focus, which is really good. It’s the first time we’ve ever been involved with something like this, I think it’s a great idea and something brilliant for southeast Queensland. It’s going to change some perceptions associated with start-up communities and we’re looking forward to being a part of that ND adding as much value and benefit to the whole program as we can.

Catch James and Adam Gilmour when they appear at Myriad 2018 on May 16–18. 


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