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The Canadian Rocketry Revolution

Written by Adam Trumpour, Concept Designer at Pratt & Whitney Canada, Owner and Rocket Propulsion Researcher at AT Aerospace, and founder and president of Launch Canada (www.launchcanada.org).

“Rocket Science”. 50 years after those first footsteps on the Moon, this phrase is still immediately evocative of something almost unimaginably challenging: something demanding of the most uncompromising skill and excellence. Here in Canada, we have had our space technology niches that we excel in, but true “rocket science”, that is to say the engineering of the vehicles that enable access to space and the propulsion systems that power them, has not been among them.

Yet over the last several years, a remarkable thing has been happening. Internationally, entrepreneurial companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin and Rocket Lab have been rising to prominence and disrupting the space launch industry, leveraging new ideas about how to build an aerospace company, new manufacturing technologies, small, nimble teams and a mindset more traditionally associated with Silicon Valley than aerospace. They’re building and launching rockets for lower cost than ever before and disrupting an industry that was once the domain of global superpowers and massive prime contractors. One such company, Rocket Lab, is even doing this in New Zealand, a nation with a population less than the Greater Toronto Area and almost no established aerospace industry. Clearly the landscape has shifted.

Unfortunately, Canada has been slow to catch on. For far too long, we’ve been held back by a very self-limiting mindset that says “we’re too small; we need to stick to what we’ve always done”. This is the very sort of attitude that causes us to fail to recognize new opportunities, fail to perceive that the world is changing around us, and fail to respond to that change.

Yet under the radar to most Canadians, a rapidly growing movement has sprung up right across the country. It’s being driven by students and grassroots innovators (and a smattering of professionals as well) who are inspired by what they see happening elsewhere at innovative companies like SpaceX and the vast potential and opportunity it represents, and are no longer satisfied with being told that they can’t do that here.

Where just a few years ago there was almost nothing, today there are around 20 university rocket teams right across the country, representing nearly 1000 active students. All are building sophisticated vehicles and pushing the technological envelope in everything from advanced composite structures and supersonic aerodynamics to liquid rocket propulsion and additively manufactured high performance rocket engines. And they are dominating at major international competitions. At the world’s largest student rocket competition, the Spaceport America Cup in New Mexico, Canadian teams regularly take home the top awards in spite of making up less than 15% of the entrants in the competition. What’s more, this level of excellence has been consistent. Talk about punching above our weight – all this in an area of space technology and cutting-edge manufacturing that, supposedly, “we don’t do here”!

Building on this demonstrated passion and exceptional talent, four Canadian teams are even participating in the Base 11 Space Challenge, a $1 million US competition to become the first university team to successfully design, build and launch a liquid-propellant rocket all the way to space: 100 km altitude. This is by far the most advanced, most challenging student design competition ever undertaken, and this past June, two of those Canadian teams placed in the top 5 in North America in the design phase of the competition, as voted by judges from industry leaders like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Yet there remains a serious disconnect. In spite of all this raw passion and demonstrated world-class talent, there have been few avenues of support for them in their home country. Canada has not yet caught on to the incredible potential they represent, and they frequently don’t even have the opportunity to launch their more advanced rockets here. Far too often, they are forced to either abandon their passion, or leave the country to pursue opportunities abroad. We are losing some of our brightest, most talented and motivated individuals due to a lack of support and opportunity.

When there is this much raw passion and demonstrated talent, yet virtually no support to help it thrive, it points to a serious disconnect. We want to consider ourselves a nation of innovators, but innovation does not happen in a vacuum. It emerges most reliably when you have an ecosystem that is conducive to it, that cultivates opportunities to develop practical skills and supports those with the passion and talent to do great things.

As I write this, work is underway to create the inaugural Launch Canada rocket innovation challenge (www.launchcanada.org) , the first-ever major Canadian rocket competition that aims to finally give Canada’s student rocketeers an outlet to pursue their activities here in Canada, take them to the next level, learn, collaborate and compete. At the same time it will provide a highly visible showcase of the kind of Canadian engineering excellence that they’ve been repeatedly demonstrating internationally but until now has been largely unseen at home. Major emphases of this competition will be design, development and testing of novel rocket-related technologies and components, and entrepreneurial thinking about the potential applications and business cases.

Collaboration and partnership are key pillars of this initiative: bringing together these students with professionals from industry, government and the investment community who can give them guidance and support; and creating win-win situations for everyone involved. And central to this is advanced manufacturing.

Rocketry, whether amateur or professional, is at its core an exercise in high-skill advanced manufacturing optimized for weight and cost. Additive manufacturing, advanced composites, exotic materials and joining processes combine with conventional machining and fabricating to enable the amazing feats of cutting-edge rocket companies like SpaceX. Metal additive manufacturing processes, for example, have become key enablers for complex liquid rocket engine designs that operate at extremes of temperature and pressure, and lightweight fluid controls for these systems. Helping Canada’s students and rocket innovators to access and leverage these processes will enable them to turn their passion and ingenuity into real hardware, build the skills that will help them become tomorrow’s leaders in Canadian industry, and even lay the groundwork for new aerospace technologies and companies.

At the same time, students and amateurs fueled by passion for the technology have the freedom to pursue genuinely novel designs and concepts with higher technical risk than traditional aerospace companies would be willing to assume, and at far lower cost than a company could achieve. While this risk has been a major roadblock to the adoption of novel manufacturing techniques like additive in cutting-edge aerospace applications, student rocketeers are able to fully embrace it and provide the kind of real-world testing, hardware demonstration and manufacturing process qualification in the most demanding of applications that can help refine manufacturing processes and accelerate their adoption in industry. After all, 3D printing a complex part is one thing, but proving that part in the extreme environment of a rocket engine is a vastly more effective demonstration of the process.

We’re creating Launch Canada because we’ve seen the talent and the potential of these grassroots rocketeers, but to truly unleash it, we need your help. We have skilled, driven young “rocket scientists” across this country who believe in what they’re doing and where they can take it. It’s high time we as a nation started supporting them and showing them that we truly believe in their potential to achieve amazing things, right here in Canada.

If supporting and tapping into this extraordinary and rapidly growing rocket science talent and helping to grow this nascent new high-tech industrial segment sounds intriguing; if you share in our belief in the limitless potential of Canadian talent and our excitement in helping it to thrive, I invite you to get in touch and help us #LaunchTheNorth!