In this week’s Community Feature, we speak to Simon Gwozdz from Equatorial Space Industries, a startup developing nanosatellite launch vehicles. 

Kopi with Simon Gwozdz, CEO of Equatorial Space Industries

1. Who are you and what do you do?

I’m the founder and CEO of Equatorial Space Industries. We are a Singapore based space launch company, which is just to say we are developing rockets, to send satellites into orbit. So, quite literally, Rocket Science.

2. What is the process of developing rockets?

We are working on rocket engines right now, we are making prototypes. When we are happy with the prototypes on the ground, the way they fire, the amount of thrust they produce, the amount of specific impulse they produce, which is basically a measure of efficiency. Then we will build a rocket which will actually fly, to a couple of kilometers in altitude.

At that point, we will be testing our control system, to make sure that the rockets goes where it should be going. When we are happy with the way, what we call the guidance navigation control system is performing, at that point we will build a Suborbital Rocket. So it’s going to go all the way to the right altitude, all the way to space. But it’s not going to generate enough velocity to stay in space, it will just fall back down.

When we are satisfied with the way that one works, we are going to build an orbital one. A much larger, we are looking at about 15 metres in length, about 6 tonnes in launch mass. So it’s still quite small but it’s going to be loud, that’s for sure.

3. What made you decide to create your own rocket company?

I think it was always in me. I always had this fascination with rockets and space, and I think everyone does in some point or another, I just refuse to grow up.

When I started my undergrad education at NUS, I started to network with the space industry in Singapore. I started to read up some books about the actual technology and science behind it. Soon after that, it became apparent that not only do we have a fantastic location for launching from Southeast Asia, because we are so close to the equator. Hence the company name.

It also became very obvious that all those tiny satellite developers, they need a dedicated launch service. They need to be able to choose which orbit to get into, and at which schedule. So that is the premium that small launch vehicles can offer as compared to big ones, which are the ones built by SpaceX. So, really it was responding to our market need, more than anything else.

4. How capital-intensive is the rocket industry?

Even though the barriers to entry drastically lowered in the last 2 or 3 decades, rocketry is still a complicated business. It’s still reliant on a lot of different disciplines because we are dealing with hardware, with software, with a lot of technicalities, a lot of business development expenses, so it is way more expensive than a typical app company to operate.

With a $100,000, you can sustain yourself with an app company for a pretty long time. For us, that’s basically maybe one prototype on the ground, one or two. So, yes it is very capital intensive. But that said, it can be successfully developed with a few million dollars.

5. What helped you launch this company?

There is a genuine business need and we are well positioned. We could be the best small launch company in the world. There is a bunch of them coming up but they are mostly in the U.S, they have limitations to which areas can they launch from, because they cannot export their rockets out and we are right here in the equator. We could offer services which are much more flexible than other companies, we could do it much better than anybody else.

All that realisation, which was pretty gradual, led us to start the company. We realised that there is an amazing great potential in this and we would be stupid not to jump on it. I feel very very lucky because it’s both. Both passion and the business. Now we are living in a time when there is a confluence between the legitimate business need for rockets and the knowledge and the technology became accessible enough for small teams, for pretty new teams to get involved with it. So it’s like living out your dream and with this potential to become a very robust company. It’s the best way ever, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

6. Where did you find your team?

Rocket science is made up of a couple of components. There is chemical engineering, there is of course software engineering, like there is in everything else. There is a lot of mechanical engineering concepts in it, like thermodynamics. There is general design kind of aspect to it.

So if you have a bunch of people who have expertise in all those areas, you can bring them together and with maybe one or two people who have experience who are helping out, you can make do. I mean rules of physics are still the same. So even though the product is different from what you normally work on, the principles are still the same.

7. Did your location at NUS hangar assist you in finding your team?

Absolutely. It’s a whole different story, coming to inviting our prospective business partners or our prospective team members to The Hangar for a proper conversation as opposed to meeting them somewhere at Starbucks, which was out of our budget anyway in the early days. We started working on the corridor at our home. Moving over to hangar was an incredible upgrade for us and we are very very happy. We are very grateful for that.

8. What’s next for Equatorial Space Industries?

We just had a not so successful engine fire on the ground, so right now we are investigating the exact reasons. We are almost done with the investigation, we already know mostly what went wrong. Now we are going to redesign a ground-based prototype and move on with another series of ground test in the next 2 or 3 months. Luckily we have enough money for that, so we’re good. We are also converting some of our team members into full-timers and part-timers, so for the first time people will be getting paid. I’m just really happy that our people will get compensated for the hard work they are putting in on every weekend, every weekday.

After that we are going to build rockets which actually fly, so that’s one phase that will get actually fun. Right now we are taking very important steps, but they are not as exciting as rockets which fly.

9. Where are the actual rockets built?

When we have a model ready, we just send it to fabrication, fabricators, and then we can assemble it with some basing tools. For test wise, so far we have done some tests in Malaysia. It’s easier to secure the right site, that’s why we went with it. We are looking for possible sites in Singapore but from our current experience, it is going to be tough. Unless Mindef (Ministry of Defence Singapore) got tempted to let us in into some firing ranch, we’ll probably stick to Malaysia for the ground test.

For the flight test, Indonesia has the right legislation in place for suborbital missions so we are already in touch with the space agency, we have some preliminary conversations going on with them. We hope that in the next few months, we would be able to strike a deal and actually fly from their existing range in Southern Java. So maybe BLOCK71 Bandung could be helpful.

10. How can we help?

I would love to see a little more adventurousness in terms of hardware startups because we do have support, but at the same time it’s still quite difficult to convince people to support a rocket company.

I would love to see more support in general for hardware and for spacetech. Most importantly, it’s the accessibility to possible testing sites because they do exist in Singapore but they are mostly used for other purposes. So that is something that I love to see, otherwise we would make do with what we have.

11. What do you have to say to aspiring rocket scientists?

Firstly, you are bound to make mistakes. Not just in rocket kind of startups, but all kinds of startups. You have to make those mistakes, in order to grow, so don’t be afraid of making mistakes, don’t be afraid to fail at some point. Just keep moving forward, that’s most important.

Watch the full video interview with Simon from Equatorial Space Industries here:

https://www.facebook.com/BLOCK71Singapore/videos/364423884283210/

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