Dmytro Khmara works as a programmer in EPAM and dreams together with his friend Oleksandr Lozynsky to develop a platform for launching rockets from air. Inventors are convinced that the launching of small satellites can be made 10 times cheaper than it costs now. Also launches can become more affordable, since air launches don’t require launch sites on land. Dmytro calls his team “Space cossacks”, they work on the project in their spare time and at their own expense. To better fit their needs for air launches, “Space cossacks” re-engineered the copter changing its classic form. Now the team is developing engine that will use methane gas instead of kerosene.

How did you start your own space startup?
I always liked space. It all started with reading fiction books. The most impressive was “The Stainless Steel Rat” by Harry Harrison, where the main hero flies from one strange planet to another. Then “Space cossacks” realised that would be cool to start publishing our own fiction. And we created adventure comics book “Cossacks in space”.

A page from “Space Cossacks” comics

One day we found out that there are startups that offer tickets to space at a cheap price. For example, “I dream of space” project sold space posters for $10, and also they promised to award randomly 1 ticket to space, that costs $70,000. That project ended, however, we liked the idea of selling tickets to space. We contacted Richard Branson and said that we wanted to represent his project, cooperate and sell tickets. He even replied us something. Then it turned out this market was already divided. In Ukraine a businessman from Spain was already selling tickets (now it’s done by Turkish company). Therefore we continued to engage in publishing comics and science fiction.

When you read science fiction, you realise that there are many things you can actually do yourself. For example, some books described the idea of “Air launch”. And this idea is now being developed. There is Pegasus project in the USA. Richard Branson also plans to launch tourist vehicles from the wing of his Boeing aircraft.

We came up with idea to build a platform with a helium balloon, that uses Archimedes’ principle to go up. Copters would be responsible for controlling the platform. As soon as the platform reaches 20-30 km height, you can launch a rocket from there. We developed a business plan for our idea and filed applications to 50 accelerators and incubators. However, we didn’t receive any feedback. “Space cossacks” managed to get to the final round of Vernadsky Challenge, but our project was declared commercially unattractive.

We want to launch satellites into space for the cost of $999 per kg. Today the price tag is 10x higher. Once SpaceX promised to charge $2,000 per kg, if they fly the re-usable rocket. However, this solution better serves big satellites. We aim at launching small satellites. Our calculations show, it’s possible to be profitable with a price tag of $999 per kg. We were the only space project at Vernadsky challenge. We were asking for seed financing, while other projects were more like at Round A, Round B – companies that already had sales. Then we got invitation from Max Tkachenko (founder of Space Hub incubator – ed. note), he got interested in our platform.

Which rocket do you use?
At first we bought rockets from the prominent rocket models builder Yuri Krupytskyi. But now we’re building our own rocket. We already made some test flights. During the tests I’ve noticed a problem: a jet from rocket hits a copter. I believe we were the first team in the world, who launched a rocket from a copter. So we realised that we needed to build our own copter: bigger and with a hole in the middle. Before Independence day in 2016 we built such a copter. Its diameter is 70 centimetres  (1 m with propellers).

We took this copter and a rocket and went to take part in World championship for space models near Lviv. 19 teams took part in Championship and we were the only independent team. Many teams represented their countries, and we were the only private team.

Our rocket raised an egg 3 times. However, we were disqualified several times. The 1-st time we were disqualified because of a parachute. Judges said our parachute didn’t meet the competition standards. Then we were told to use a ribbon for braking. We attached a ribbon instead of a parachute, however failed to reach 300 m height. The third time we got a disqualification, because we did not start the engines properly – they needed to be launched one by one, and we launched them simultaneously in parallel. Anyhow, we didn’t break the egg. It flew 3 times successfully.

The biggest thing that surprised me at the Championship is that participants’ rockets were made of modern materials: carbon, for example. One of participants from the USA said they had been making rockets from glass fiber and carbon fibre for 30 years already.

Rocket built by “Space cossacks” for the Wold Championship for space models

What will be the size of your future rocket?  
It will be 55-65 cm in diameter and 6-12 m high, depending on the size of the tanks. It’s 1,5-2 times smaller than the rockets they build in Australia. Those rockets have the same height, and bigger diameter: 1,4 meters. However, their rockets will start from the ground, while we aim at launching from 30 km height, hence we need less fuel.

You’re saying that “Air launch” can save on fuel. Where else can you save?
The engine for such a rocket is cheaper. Due to the pressure on the engines at the sea level, they work differently than in the vacuum. Usually different engine types are built for the different rocket stages. Or you can design less efficient engines, that would work both in the air and in vacuum. Our team needs to focus only on one engine type: engine for vacuum. Therefore our task is more simple. We need less fuel. And we don’t need to make very solid rockets, since they already fly in vacuum. At an altitude of 30 km, there is only 1% of pressure that we experience on the ground. There is less friction and the rocket doesn’t burn that much.

Anyway, the main advantage is that we don’t need a classic launch site, which can be unavailable due to financial or political issues. Launching our rocket will cost many times cheaper than Elon Musk offers now. We can make launches commonly affordable. The demand for launching small satellites is growing incredibly! In 2014-2015 the queue for launches was estimated at about $3 bln. Now it increased to $7 bln. Any project that will be able to enter the market and solve this issue with a queue will become super-popular.

What difficulties did you face, while making the platform?
We needed balloons filled with helium, that could lift the platform to space. Since last winter, we’re still learning, how to build gas cylinders. At first, we wanted to buy helium cylinders, but nobody in Ukraine manufactures them. There is such a business in Belarus, but they have crazy prices. To be profitable, the net cost of balloon cube needs to be less than $1. If we order in Belarus, the price starts from $100. We need at least 300 cubes. It’s a crazy price. And we decided to learn ourselves how to manufacture plastic membranes to produce shells for aerostats. We’re still learning. Now we have necessary tools and technologies. All this is done in our free time and at our own expense.

Are you having a working day right now?
Yes. And I also managed to work on our project today. I’ve been exchanging messages with Max Tkachenko since 8 a.m. Unfortunately, I’m able to allocate only few hours per week to work on the project. Luckily I have people, who help me. One of them is Oleksandr Lozynsky. He is helpful both technically and from the point of moral support. Also we find people among Kyiv makers, who help us solve technical issues.

Oleksandr Lozynsky, member of “Space cossacks” team

What does Roman Yukhimets do in the project?
He brings new ideas. He’s a good specialist in international economy. He knows energy market very well. Perhaps, one of the reasons we decided to switch to gas fuel, is that Roman specialises in gas markets. Then we saw that everyone in space industry is about to switch to gas. Elon Musk will start using gas, Russians are thinking of using gas. It’s less expensive resource and it’s better for the engine. Right now engineers are using kerosene and liquid oxygen, they are separated in tanks by thermal insulation, because these are substances in different states. While both methane and oxygen are gases, it’s much simpler to design tanks that are needed.

Do you believe the project is real from technical point of view?
We need to make tests, learn, see how it flies. We know how to solve problems. We had an issue with a rocket. We wanted to make it entirely of composite materials, including tanks. Also we wanted to use liquid oxygen and ordinary methane as a fuel. But we also observed that many people still make aluminium rockets and steel tanks. We didn’t understand why. All the small startups in the USA and Australia are using composite materials. Eventually Elon Musk few weeks ago mentioned that his new rocket would use composite materials and composite tanks.

You’re a programmer. Where did you learn physics?
I graduated from Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. Oleksandr learned how to manage rockets and satellites at National Aviation University. However, Internet is much more helpful, than formal education, when it comes to rocket building. We face many problems when building the rocket, though there are no issues that can’t be solved with Internet. “Rozetka” (the largest online shop in Ukraine – ed. note) sells even cylinders that would fit our rockets. Regular cylinders weigh 30-50 kg depending on the pressure, and composite cylinders weigh only 6 kg. In Ukraine it’s possible to manufacture carbon cylinders. Also we reached a preliminary agreement with design office, that professionally works on electronics. If we manufacture the rocket with tanks in Ukraine, the cost would be $50,000 (without engine). Also we have people, who will help us to test our rocket on military site, as soon as it’s ready.

Who’s developing the engine?
We are negotiating with several specialists, who work in Dnipro at state enterprises. They are young and active, we count on their support. We give them initial data to make calculations necessary for the engine. Also we want to participate in student contest organised by Association of rocket modelling of the USA and The Mars Society run by dr. Robert Zubrin. He’s a famous person, who influenced Elon Musk. According to the contest rules, it’s necessary to raise the cargo at the level of 10 km and separate it exactly at that height. To take part in the contest, we need to complete the rocket by May 2018. We need $50,000 to build the platform and the rocket.

Do programming skills help you in the project?
Sure. I personally reconfigured the firmware for a drone. When drones fly, they need to constantly alter their position. The better they stabilize their position, the more severe wind they can handle. The most expensive consumer drones can now fly under the wind of 10 m\sec – that’s a light wind. I modified the firmware of our drone, and now it can align itself 20 times faster. I have hypothesis that our drone can be used when the wind is at least 5 times more powerful.

How much payload can your rocket lift?
Our platform will be able to lift 300 kg – this weight includes both rocket and cargo. We’re now focusing on CubeSat satellites. Their standard size is 10x10x10 cm, and the weight is 1,4 kg. The cost of such a satellite is $1,500. Hundreds of such satellites are launched every year. These satellites work for a few years and then they burn in atmosphere. Anyway, such satellites are really needed, because they can shape the network that costs hundreds of times cheaper than one big satellite with the same function. Such satellites can provide Internet connection on board of airplanes. Or they can be used to monitor land. Big rockets are designed to carry big satellites. They carry small satellites only when there is a free space in the rocket. And it’s also necessary to wait for the rocket that flies to the orbit you need.

What orbit are you targeting?
We aim at orbit of ISS, up to 300 km.

Who is now working on “Space cossacks” comics?
We brainstorm ideas, and artist Andrew Dankovych draws comics. He also creates comics of his own. We haven’t announced that officially, but starting from summer, we decided to do less comics and more rockets. We found partners, who will take the part of the work on comics.

When you entered the University, did you think that you will get involved in space industry?
No. I was interested in programming. I learned how to repair computers and how to develop software. My second education is physics and math. I entered Physics and Mathematics faculty, because they also taught how to program well. And I always loved comics and fiction. I was 5 years old when I read my first book – “The girl from Earth” by Kir Bulychev.

In 9-th grade I read all the books I could find in district library for children: fiction, detectives, novels. I was bored and started reading technical literature, then came across a book about Basic programming language.

At some point I realised that all those fantastic ideas from books can be realised in practise. For example, I read about rockets launched by Germans, and I understood there is nothing complicated about those rockets. They used valves, steel components. Many things we can replaced by lighter materials. For example, their control system weighed 50 kg, and now we have only a small scheme. We can do that everything. We have access to all necessary components. You can go to Aliexpress, place an order and assemble a rocket in garage.

At some point Elon Musk will definitely sell his expired rockets at the price of scrap metal. Someone could buy that stage for a couple of hundreds of thousands of dollars, restore it, refuel and fly to space at the price of a jeep. The further the technology will develop, the more common people, who are not billionaires or state representatives will be able to afford flying and launching things to space. Amazing things will become possible! It can hardly be described in any space novel.

At Comic-con I talked to the author of “Martian” book Andy Weir. Apparently, in his new book, that he is now writing about the Moon (titled “Artemis”), he will describe such a future. By the way, he says that a house in California is now more expensive than buying a rocket and flying to space.

Are you saying that space technologies are not that complicated and anyone who knows physics well, can restore the expired rocket and fly to space? Don’t you need a special education for that?

I believe that humanity developed a solid basis for flying to near space. You don’t need to be a specialist in a narrow field or like in Victorian era to have a diverse skills set. However, Musk keeps the price high. And other companies also keep prices for technologies high. At the same time Musk does his best to cut prices, where possible. For example, SpaceX wanted to buy from Boeing a turbo pump. Boeing said the price would be $5 mln. Musk didn’t agree and in 9 months his employee developed the same detail for the net cost of $900.

I know Australian startup, that doesn’t use any special turbo pumps at all. They decided to use regular batteries and ordinary electric pump. When we were building our platform, everyone was saying: “You’re doing it wrong. These position sensors, gyroscopes need to be in the centre of the drone, otherwise it will behave badly”. We moved sensors away from the centre, and made a hole in the middle necessary to launch the rocket. Then I re-engineered the firmware. And everything works. The main thing is to start doing at least something!

Author: Nina Glushchenko.

Pictures: Olga Kokoshko.