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St. Louis startup hopes to compete for commercial space flight business

St. Louis startup hopes to compete for commercial space flight business

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ST. LOUIS • When he was 5 or 6 years old, Brian Stofiel helped his father and grandfather fire a hobby rocket in Carondelet Park in south St. Louis.

Now, more than three decades later, Stofiel heads a small startup company that aspires to carve a niche for itself in the developing field of commercial space flight.

Stofiel’s idea is to use mobile, balloon-launched rockets to propel small satellites carrying made-to-order, relatively small payloads for business, research and governmental clients.

Now, he says, such organizations must wait four to seven years to get secondary space on satellites launched with larger rockets by major companies.

“This is for someone who wants repeatability and wants it on a regular basis,” said Stofiel, 40, an Air Force veteran working on an aerospace engineering degree.

“It could be once a week, once a month, as often as they want. What we’re trying to provide is on-demand access to low-earth orbit.”

Among potential users, he said, are companies and universities wanting to do space-based scientific and engineering experiments. Other users could include organizations needing images of Earth from the perspective of space.

The small satellites, he said, also could be employed by governmental agencies and others coping with natural disasters, or the shipping and mining industries.

He said he’d float the balloons from just about any location for which he could get Federal Aviation Administration approval.

“As long as the FAA gives me permission, I’ll launch it from your parking lot,” he said. “Our unofficial slogan is to give us a payload by Monday and we’ll have it in orbit by Friday.”

Stofiel said a key to his business model was keeping costs — and the price tag for clients — relatively low.

He said one way of doing that was using helium or hydrogen balloons, which would carry the rockets to their launching from about 100,000 feet up.

Because of a lack of air resistance at that level, 70 percent less fuel is required than with ground-based rockets, he said.

He said that wasn’t a new idea and that NASA did that on occasion.

But, he adds, “what is new is we don’t have any metal in our rocket. The engine of the rocket is all ceramics and composites,” which are less expensive.

“So we 3D print out of plastic the rocket,” he said. “We apply a heat-resistant ceramic replacing the plastic.”

Stofiel came up with the idea in 2013 while working for a company that repairs nuclear detection equipment, one of several technical jobs he’s had. Later that year he enrolled at Kent State University in Ohio, while he continued to work on his project.

In 2016 he moved to St. Louis, where he had lived for four years as a child and has other family ties. He said he came here because of his intention to work on a Ph.D. in fluid dynamics at St. Louis University; he hopes to begin there in the fall.

He got an associate’s degree in avionics electronics while in the Air Force, where he repaired electronic search and rescue equipment from 1997 to 2001.

He and his associates have conducted six flight tests of his rockets over the past two years from locations in Southern Illinois, including Carlyle Lake. Two have used the balloon launch technique.

There also have been 38 “static fire” tests in which a rocket sits on the ground. Some have been in the Hillsboro area and others in the backyard of his south St. Louis home, including one June 20 that tested the heat coating. He uses a 3D copier in his basement to produce some of the rockets.

He plans to test launch from a commercial spaceport in New Mexico this summer and hopefully send a rocket to the Karman line of about 330,000 feet — the start of space.

After that, the company, which Stofiel said so far has been funded with about $1 million primarily from his family, will start trying to attract outside investors. The goal is $50 million.

“There are a lot of players coming into the field of small satellite launching,” he said. “We want to be one of the first to market.”

Outside investment, he said, would fund further research, on guidance and navigation systems and a drone vehicle to return the satellites to earth.

He said his company now was made up of about nine people, most with engineering backgrounds but none paid any salary so far. Most had “day jobs until six months ago,” he said.

He said he hoped soon to establish a headquarters in a downtown building being bought by a family friend, which the company would lease with an option to buy.

Ray LeBeau, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at SLU, said that small-payload rocketry was an area of burgeoning interest and that there was a growing market for it. He said a key part of Stofiel’s approach was the promise to return the satellites and what they’re carrying to Earth if requested.

Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for the Teal Group consulting firm in suburban Washington, said that he wasn’t aware of Stofiel Aerospace but that there indeed was a market for use of tiny satellites.

“The key … is to offer a reliable vehicle that is extremely cheap,” Caceres said, speaking generally.

Dean Purdy, a retired McDonnell Douglas engineer who worked on multiple U.S. space programs, said he thought Stofiel had a shot at succeeding.

“He has a well-thought-out program that is somewhat unique in the field,” Purdy said. Now, he said, he needs to prove it can be done.

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