A little part of Durango will head to the moon in late 2023.
Twelve small maneuvering rockets that will take a lunar lander carrying a ground-roving vehicle to the moon’s South Pole to search for water and ice will be made in Durango by Agile Space Industries.
Agile, founded in 2009, originally offered a test site for rocket engines in a remote area adjacent to Durango-La Plata County Airport. It expanded in 2018 to design, develop, test and manufacture small rocket engines, called attitude control thrusters, used to steer space vehicles.
Agile was selected in December 2020 by Astrobotic Technology Inc., a Pittsburgh-based spacecraft and space robotics company, to build the 12 thrusters that will guide its Griffin Lunar Lander to the moon.
Griffin Mission One is slated to carry the VIPER, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, to the South Pole of the moon in late 2023 in search of lunar water and ice.
“This mission has a tremendous amount of innovation involved,” says Daniel Gillies, Astrobotic’s Griffin Mission One director. “It requires extremely mass efficient performance from the propulsion system, within a fixed budget and schedule.
Gillies said a custom engineered thruster seemed “inaccessible” given time deadlines and financial program constraints.
“But within a matter of weeks of issuing an RFP, Agile designed, produced and demonstrated a hot-fire test of a subscale Griffin-optimized ACT. The level of commitment and investment in the project by Agile were key to their selection as a propulsion provider for Griffin Mission One,” he said.
The preliminary subscale thrusters demonstrated to Astrobiotics will be developed into the final A110 trusters, the attitude control thrusters that will be used on the Griffin Mission Lunar Lander – not only on Griffin Mission One, but on subsequent missions that use the Griffin Mission Lunar Lander.
Julian Miller, chief revenue officer for Agile, said, “There might be this presumption that this looks like a overnight success story or something that happened on the turn of a dime. But the real story behind it is we’ve actually been working with NASA for a couple of years.”
The key to Agile’s landing of the contract with Astrobotic, Miller said, is the pace it can design, refine, test and develop custom thrusters using 3D printing technology. Agile developed 3D metal printing using high-temperature resistant metal alloys needed for space vehicles with NASA.
3D printing with metal alloys avoids the need to drill, weld or manually manipulate the material, not only cutting the manufacturing time of thrusters but also their cost.
“Because we’re using the metal 3D printing in a matter of hours or days, depending on the size of the print, we’re able to get it straight off the build plate, do a little bit of post processing and prep before test, install it on the test stand and conduct oversight in 48 to 72 hours,” Miller said.
He added: “From that task, we’re able to take all of that data, put it into our analytical models, learn from it, and then wash, rinse and repeat that process.”
In two weeks time, he said, Agile did multiple iterations to dial in the performance of the preliminary thruster shown to Astrobotics, and that’s what landed the contract.
The preliminary thruster shown to Astrobiotics formed the base design for what eventually will became Agile’s A110 thruster that will guide the Griffin Lunar Landers to the moon.
“The real scoop is that in that two weeks time, there wasn’t just one but multiple different iterations,” he said. “And that was all enabled by additive manufacturing and these modular designs that allow us to try out different injector and chamber combinations. It’s part of that rocket-science magic that we’re able to do out by the airport at our test facility.”
Using 3D manufacturing with on-site testing gives Astrobotic valuable data far earlier than conventional development of thrusters, an especially beneficial outcome when designing space vehicles.
“In the context of the typical space mission, we’re actually giving Astrobotic a lot of really valuable information before they’re going into their preliminary design review with NASA,” Miller said.
Agile’s process is more efficient – from design to manufacture – compared with traditional development of thrusters.
“By being able to rely on commercial providers like Astrobotic, and Agile, NASA is able to do more science with a limited budget,” he said.
Agile is growing as a company and soon will be gaining a more visible perch in Durango.
It plans to open a satellite office in downtown Durango to handle accounting, human resources and other business support functions.
Agile currently has 30 employees, and Miller anticipates the firm will have 60 employees within 12 to 18 months.
Most of the firm’s employees are located in Durango. Only a limited number are working remotely, Miller said.
Durango’s rural location with ample outdoor recreational opportunities have proved excellent lures for aerospace professionals looking to escape big cities.
“Part of our allure, even before COVID was the fact that we had this really beautiful, gorgeous location,” he said. “In the COVID and post-COVID world, we’ve seen an uptick in terms of people wanting to get out of big cities. You no longer have strong reasons to be in dense urban centers. It’s a pretty easy selling point to get someone to relocate out here, especially when you have the work-life harmony that Durango offers.
“For the same reasons, our customers also love visiting us out here in Durango.”
Michael French, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, said firms like Agile are crucial to building a more robust, diversified economy.
“With tourism, if we have a forest fire, or if we have a bad snow year, if something happens to the river, as we’ve seen with the Gold King Mine spill, it really has a huge impact on our economy,” he said. “But if we can figure out how to diversify, and support organizations like Agile, that’s what’s really going to help us in the long run.”
Beginning with Mercury, the Durango startup payment-processing company, the local economy has built up a vibrant, critical mass of financial technology workers and businesses.
French sees Agile as perhaps an aerospace economic pioneer – akin to playing the same role Mercury did in Durango’s financial technology sector.
“Maybe Agile will start an innovation movement here in aerospace or aviation,” he said. “Obviously, that would be great. Any time we can develop a sector that helps diversify the economy and attract a talented pool of workers and entrepreneurs to become a kind locus point known for competency, it’s going to help the economy. It’s going to help everybody.”