Dreaming of suitcases in space

LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — The mission to turn space into the next express delivery frontier began from a humble propeller plane above a remote airstrip in the shadow of the Santa Ana Mountains.

Shortly after sunrise on a recent Saturday, an engineer from Inversion Space, a start-up barely a year old, threw a capsule resembling a flying saucer out of the open door of an airplane flying at 3,000 feet. The capsule, 20 inches in diameter, somersaulted in the air for a few seconds before deploying a parachute and breaking the container upright for a slow descent.

“It was slow to open,” said Justin Fiaschetti, the 23-year-old CEO of Inversion, who looked anxiously at the parachute through the viewfinder of a long-lens camera.

The exercise resembled the work of amateur rocket enthusiasts. But in fact it was a test run for something more fantastic. Inversion builds orbiting capsules to deliver goods from space around the world. To do that, Inversion’s capsule will pass through Earth’s atmosphere about 25 times the speed of sound, making the parachute essential for a soft landing and undisturbed payload.

Inversion is betting that as it gets cheaper to fly to space, government agencies and companies will not only want to send things to orbit, but also bring items back to Earth.

Inversion aims to develop a 1.2 meter diameter capsule with a payload equivalent to the size of a pair of carry-on suitcases by 2025. Once in orbit, the capsule, the company hopes, can navigate itself to a private commercial space station or remain in orbit with solar panels until recalled back to Earth. When it came time to return, the capsule was able to fall out of orbit and re-enter the atmosphere.

The capsule would deploy a parachute to slow its descent and land within tens of miles of its target location. The company has planned a smaller 20-inch diameter demonstration capsule to be ready by 2023.

If Inversion is successful, it’s possible to imagine hundreds or thousands of containers floating around in space for up to five years, like some (really) distant storage cabinets.

The company’s founders think the capsules could contain artificial organs that can be delivered to the operating room in a matter of hours or serve as mobile field hospitals that float in orbit and be sent to remote parts of the planet. And one day, a shortcut through space could make for unimaginably fast deliveries — like delivering a New York pizza to San Francisco in 45 minutes.

The founders of Inversion think what may seem like a castle in the air can become more realistic as launch costs drop from current prices, which start at $1 million (and increase depending on weight) to share space on a SpaceX rocket. Inversion declined to provide an estimate of how much the capsules will cost.

“The big hurdle that everyone in the industry is trying to overcome is that, at today’s costs, there’s just not that much demand to do much in space,” said Matthew C. Weinzierl, a Harvard Business School professor who conducts research. has published. about the economic potential of space.

For decades, people have imagined living and working in space as an extension of life on Earth. That vision seemed like a Hollywood fantasy until an influx of private rocket companies dramatically reduced the cost of going to space, making commercial operations off Earth more feasible.

The cost of launching one kilogram, about 2.2 pounds, of payload into space has fallen by about 90 percent over the past 30 years. SpaceX is expected to cut costs even lower with Starship, the next-generation rocket still in development. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said he expects launch costs for the massive rocket to be less than $10 million within three years — compared to the advertised price of $62 million for the Falcon 9, the widely used launch. company’s rocket.

To make space more accessible than it is today, launching rockets cheaply is only part of the equation.

Another important factor is space facilities. Last year, NASA selected three companies to receive funding for commercial space stations as part of a plan to eventually replace the International Space Station. A fourth company, Axiom Space, was awarded a $140 million contract in 2020 to build a habitable module on the ISS.

Mr. Fiaschetti, who interned at SpaceX before dropping out of college last year to pursue his own start-up dreams, thinks physical goods — not just satellite data — can be sent back from space.

Today, the main payload for rockets is satellites that remain in space. The vehicles that transport people or experiments from space are large, cost over $100 million, and usually interact with a specific rocket. Inversion said it has designed its smaller capsules to fit into any commercial rocket, so they can take frequent and inexpensive trips to space.

What Inversion is trying to do is not easy. Designing a vehicle for reentry is a different technical challenge than sending things into space. When a capsule enters the atmosphere from space, it travels at such high speeds that there is a danger of burning — a huge risk to both human travelers and precious non-human cargo.

Seetha Raghavan, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Central Florida, said it would be even more difficult to deal with the capsule’s heat, vibration and deceleration as the vehicle shrunk.

“It all gets harder when you have a smaller item to check,” Ms Raghavan said.

Inversion’s plan for capsules in orbit raises questions about whether it will contribute to space congestion, already a problem with satellite megaconstellations. And the abundance of satellites interfering with observations of planets, stars and other celestial bodies is a common complaint from astronomers.

But Inversion said it used materials to make its capsules significantly less reflective to reduce visual pollution. In addition, the company said the capsule would come with systems to prevent debris and collisions in orbit.

Mr. Briggs, 23, and Mr. Fiaschetti met as they sat side by side during an admissions ceremony for freshmen at Boston University. They became active in the school’s Rocket Propulsion Group and worked on rocket designs. They moved to Los Angeles during the pandemic. One evening they discussed the future of the space industry: ‘We are nerds. This is what we do,” said Mr. Fiaschetti – and they started creating cheaper return vehicles to carry cargo from space.

They moved to a boarding house in the San Pedro neighborhood of Los Angeles and paid $1,250 a month each, including use of a garage that became the company’s workshop. Using Mr. Fiaschetti’s woodworking equipment, they designed and made a working rocket motor from aluminum in an effort to prove to potential investors that they had the necessary technical skills.

In June, Inversion Space joined Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup incubator known for its early investments in Airbnb and Stripe. Five months later, it said it had raised $10 million, in part based on letters of intent worth $225 million from potential customers interested in reserving space on Inversion’s capsules. Mr Fiaschetti refused to identify the customers.

Venture capital is starting to see the potential of space. Global venture capital firms invested $7.7 billion in space-related technology last year, up nearly 50 percent from a year earlier, according to data collected by PitchBook.

Inversion moved into a 5000 square meter warehouse in an office park in Torrance. It’s a hobbyist’s dream workshop, with machine tools for making parts, welding equipment and a 20-ton hydraulic workshop press to pack parachutes as dense as oak.

Tucked away at the far end of the warehouse — next to a floor-to-ceiling American flag and a basketball hoop — is a black, 10-foot-long shipping container for testing rocket motors and parachute deployment mechanisms. The structure features steel-reinforced concrete walls, ceiling sprinklers and a system to replace oxygen with nitrogen in the event of a fire.

On a recent visit, Inversion was preparing to test a new parachute design. Parachutes are tricky. They have to unfold perfectly for a capsule to slow down and not rock too much. Many factors, such as fabric choice and seam design, can affect the effectiveness of a parachute.

While most rocket companies outsource the design and manufacture of parachutes, Inversion sees building their own parachutes as an advantage.

In an earlier test, Inversion had noticed that the capsule was oscillating a lot. On that day, Mr. Fiaschetti, Mr. Briggs and two engineers had arrived before dawn on a recent Saturday at an airstrip largely used by paratroopers to test a new design.

Connor Kelsay, an engineer overseeing Inversion’s parachute design, climbed into the plane containing the test capsule, which was attached with a GoPro camera and an inertial measurement unit to measure its movements. After throwing the capsule out of the plane, he waited a few seconds and jumped after it. Kelsay, an experienced air diver, circled the capsule and videotaped the movement of another camera mounted on his helmet.

When he landed, he shared the same observation as everyone else: the parachute was slow to use. The team quickly scanned the video and went through a list of possible factors. Did Mr. Kelsay throw away the capsule too roughly? Was there a lot of turbulence when the fall happened? Was it because they used a different shaped capsule last time?

In the second test, the parachute opened as expected. However, the GoPro camera taped to the capsule fell off during the descent — sparking a frenetic search. (They eventually found it.) After the second test, the team thought it had pinpointed the problem: An adhesive cloth tape used to plug a hole had caused the parachute to stick.

Afterwards, Mr. Fiaschetti said he was not disappointed by the slow opening of the parachute, as it was part of the process.

“In early development, you expect things to not go as perfectly as you wanted,” he said. “I think that’s why they call hardware ‘hard tech’.”

This post Dreaming of suitcases in space

was original published at “https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/07/technology/inversion-suitcases-space.html”