Just under 60 people are currently working on a mini-launcher design at start-up company Rocket Factory Augsburg, which was founded in 2018 and will soon be complementing OHB’s portfolio.They’re young: average age 31. They're diverse: 18 different nationalities. They’re specialized: all the technical skills required for launch vehicle engineering and the mission are on hand. And they have one goal: to bring a low-cost mini launcher onto the market.
Thanks to the “new space” approach combined with a Silicon Valley mindset, they should be able to achieve this relatively quickly. They want to have their mini launcher ready for lift-off for the first time by the end of 2021. Five years later they want to be completing between ten and 20 launches per year. In addition to passengers from the OHB Group, they also want to launch payloads in the 200-kg class for external customers. In all aspects of their work their performance is exactly as they want their mini launcher to be, namely flexible and cost-efficient.
Tut sends sparks flying!
Tut Baldock literally sends sparks flying when she converts her powder mixture into high-precision engine elements in the large 3D printer. Through the inspection window you can watch the sparks dancing and the workpiece taking shape.
However, working in the space industry was not a childhood dream for her. Ultimately, it was her passion for 3D printing that brought her to launch vehicle engineering. Tut grew up on a farm in New Zealand with lots of cows and horses. She spent a great deal of time outdoors and helped out on the farm. Indeed, a life as a farmer seemed quite conceivable. When the additive manufacturing process in the form of 3D printing emerged, she experimented with it early on and printed everything possible using plastic. During her studies of engineering and physics, she continued to work intensively on it. While she was on her master’s degree, everything revolved around physical metrology, lasers and material sciences as well. She is convinced that 3D printing also offers advantages for launcher engineering: “I like the fact that, unlike traditional production methods that start off with a block where all that isn’t needed is removed, 3D printing produces very little waste. No wonder, because all we initially have is powder! As well as this, additive manufacturing is cheaper and much faster. The greatest advantage, however, is clearly the fact that with 3D printing we can produce very complex shapes, which were previously conceivable but unfortunately not feasible.”
For her 27 years Tut has already gained an unusual amount of experience with additive manufacturing for launch vehicle components. In the two and a half years she spent with the US company Rocket Lab in Auckland, New Zealand, Tut probably produced a total of around 150 engines. Eight launchers were equipped with them, while the rest were used for test purposes. During her time at Rocket Lab, Tut enthusiastically witnessed two Electron launches. “There is nothing quite like your very first launch and I’m already looking forward to our first one”, which, if it were up to her, would take place in Germany. “Engineered, built and launched in Germany”, that would really delight the New Zealander, as improbable as it may be.
When Tut commenced her duties at Rocket Factory Augsburg in April 2019, she assumed responsibility for the production of the combustion chamber including the nozzle throat of the launcher engine. She speaks enthusiastically of “the chamber” and “the throat” and of the “most important elements in launcher engineering”, because this is where the combustion required to produce the thrust arises. The Augsburg-based company is currently planning to have identical engines on all levels of the carrier - but is open to new approaches should they prove their worth.
At the Rocket Factory, testing is also part of Tut’s daily routine. “I've tried various copper powder blends. Copper has good thermal conductivity and also optimum strength for our purposes. Copper alloys are also available in powder form, and that’s what we originally started with.” In addition to the raw material, she can and must also consider parameters such as the supply of gas, laser, design and post-processing of the finished workpiece and perform many tests to determine the optimum manufacturing process. How fortunate that Tut obviously has a passion for physics, metrology and materials science!
“What I like so much about Rocket Factory is that I can also be involved in the design of the engine. I’m included in consultations and can contribute my experience and offer advice. I like that because it makes me feel like I’m part of the whole,” says Tut, whose large 3D printer is housed in a separate room in the large workshop of the Augsburg Technology Center. “My colleagues design the part so that it works, and I intervene when necessary to make it manufacturable.”
Because English is the working language at the Rocket Factory due to the international workforce and because the employees like to spend time together outside working hours, Tut doesn’t speak much German yet. However, she wants to change that as she is eager to explore the beautiful landscape, the lakes, cities and mountains. She would definitely like to make use of the fact that it is so easy here, you just get on a train and travel a short distance. Looking back on her decision to move from Auckland to Augsburg and to seek a new professional home, she says: “The contact with a few people I used to work with at Rocket Lab hasn’t broken off. That’s how I found out that Rocket Factory Augsburg was about to buy a 3D printer. That sounded great and what was even better was that they didn’t have anyone to operate it yet. So I thought to myself: “I know all about that and I can do that and it would make sense! Then it was an easy decision for me... even if it meant moving to another continent.” No one from her family has ever been to Europe, the visit from her parents and sibling is still pending. She meets her boyfriend, who is still working in New Zealand and who expressly supports her decision, halfway in Mexico. Tut says that there’s not a single day that she regrets this major step. Perhaps it is also due to the appreciation she receives by the Rocket Factory Augsburg: “Here I have a lot of responsibility and I am recognized for my expertise and my opinion”.