Rocket men 

Montana's small and burning aerospace industry

Rusting cars, piles of gravel, mangled bits of metal, and unruly weeds surround a white shipping container perched in the middle of an industrial park 10 miles southwest of Butte. On the surface, the Butte AeroTec facility doesn't look like much. Inside the shipping container, however, another story unfolds. Four black computer screens hang above a window that opens to a view of a rocket-testing site. "This is what we call our control room," says Dave Micheletti, the director of the Montana Aerospace Development Association.

Yes, there are rockets in Montana. And rocket scientists.

Micheletti helped form this nonprofit in 2002 to incubate and grow the aerospace industry in Montana. In 2009, MADA joined forces with the for-profit, Silicon Valley-based Space Propulsion Group. Now the partners say research at the ramshackle Montana facility could revolutionize space travel. "It could be applied to systems capable of taking tourists in space," says Brian Cantwell, retired chair of Stanford University's Aeronautics and Astronautics Department and a founding member of SPG.

Information is gathered in the site's control room via a spider web of wires that connect sensors at the rocket testing site, hundreds of yards away, to a series of computers that allow aerospace engineers to glean, among other things, how fast hybrid rocket fuel burns.

Cantwell, along with Mustafa Arif Karabeyoglu, who earned his doctorate at Stanford, developed the fuel that's being tested in Butte. Made with paraffin and liquid oxygen, it's essentially candle wax with an oxidizing kick. The propellant is environmentally benign compared to conventional rocket fuel, which is made with things like perchlorate, a chemical found in drinking water across the country that has been linked to thyroid problems.

SPG researchers say paraffin-based propellant is also easier to handle than traditional fuel, which is stored as a fluid or solid. Fluid, for one, leaks. As for solid propellant, once it ignites, it doesn't stop, making it tough to control.

click to enlarge A rocket anchored to the ground at the Butte AeroTec facility consumes fuel made with candle wax and liquid oxygen. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MADA
  • Photo courtesy of MADA
  • A rocket anchored to the ground at the Butte AeroTec facility consumes fuel made with candle wax and liquid oxygen.

Because paraffin power is cheaper and safer, Cantwell and his peers hope it will make space travel more accessible—for everyone. The Air Force appears to agree that there's something to SPG's technology. It recently renewed a five-year contract with the company, which will enable it to continue its work in Butte. "They're actually the key government entity that is supporting this research," Cantwell says.

That's good news for Micheletti. A Butte native, he says he's been working pro bono for the past 10 years with his boyhood friend Jim Kambich to grow MADA and Montana's fledgling aerospace industry. "Both of us are committed to the wellbeing and the future growth of this community," he says. "That's the primary driver."

Micheletti and MADA launched the Butte facility two years ago. Before that, he earned a master's degree in engineering science from the University of Idaho. He also worked for heavy hitters in the aerospace realm including Boeing and the Air Force. Meanwhile, the third-generation Montanan always envisioned coming home to Butte somehow.

But decades after nearly all of the copper mines that grew the historic city shuttered, the local community continues to weather economic uncertainty. It's tough to make a living here, where windows in many of the tall brick buildings dotting downtown are broken and covered with plywood. "I decided I wanted my kids to be raised here," Micheletti says. "I wanted to do what I love, too. So I thought, 'Well, I'm going to try to find a way to build my own activity here rather than rely on somebody else.'"

He called Kambich, who through his work with the Montana Economic Revitalization and Development Institute specializes in forming public and private partnerships. The two set about lobbying local, state, and federal governments along with private industries to secure financial and political support. In 2002, they formed the nonprofit MADA.

MADA achieved a significant victory when it wooed SPG to Butte. The public-private partnership reflects a trend that's increasingly taking place at the federal level. In fact, as NASA retires the last of its shuttle fleet this year—Endeavour launched for the final time Monday—the agency is beginning to contract much of its workload to for-profit entities.

That could bode well for SPG and MADA.

Since 2009 the partners have successfully conducted a series of tests of an 11-inch-diameter rocket. On January 18, however, during the first test of a 24-inch-diameter rocket, something went wrong. An explosion shook scientists and destroyed the steel-sided enclosure the rocket was anchored in. No one was injured. "We felt the shock wave, of course," says Micheletti, who was in the control room. "There was a pretty good sized fireball."

Micheletti and his peers believe a leaky valve allowed liquid oxygen to pool and, once ignited, caused the blast. They resumed testing on April 28. They now use a new test cell surrounded by three concrete walls and topped by a 2,300-pound steel blast net that hangs from a thick chain.

For the first time, at the end of April, engineers in Butte tested a lightweight, flight-ready fiberglass outer casing that resembles real-world space technology, rather than the heavier steel casing used in earlier trials. Cantwell says he hopes to eventually fire up a 50-inch-diameter rocket in Butte. "This could be the basis for a vehicle that could launch very small payloads," he explains.

As for Micheletti, he's delighted that SPG recently opened a small Montana office in downtown Butte's historic Thornton Building.

"This is starting to have pretty good economic impact," he says.

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