A $56.5m federal grant lands for a rocket to take off

James Riley
Editorial Director

The stars are beginning to align for the maiden flight of the first Australian-designed orbital vehicle, which is being built on the Gold Coast in Queensland by local upstart Gilmour Space Technologies.

Earlier this month, the company received word that the federal government would go ahead with a $56.6 million co-investment grant to the Gilmour-led Australian Space Manufacturing Network, the Commonwealth’s contribution to a $157 million project.

The Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has visited the company’s manufacturing facilities at Helensvale and has signed the payload fairing of the three-stage Eris rocket – a space industry custom for good luck.

New facilities at the Bowen Orbital Spaceport just south of Bowen in North Queensland have been built. And most of the regulatory hurdles that will allow the launch have been surmounted.

There is still a lot of work to be done. The company is aiming for its Eris test flight to get off the ground toward the end of 2023 but has also planned for a possible spill-over into 2024.

InnovationAus.com travelled to the Gold Coast for update interviews with co-founder and chief executing Adam Gilmour and his co-founder brother James Gilmour and timed our visit to coincide with the Prime Minister’s tour of the Gold Coast facility.

Up to a point, the maiden test flight of the Eris rocket is an expectations game. This is very unfamiliar territory for Australia with its nascent domestic space industry.

At face value, what the company is trying to do is absurd. It aims to design, build and launch a rocket capable of carrying a payload to orbit from a country that is obsessed with digging stuff out of the ground.

In this video, Adam Gilmour sets out his expectations for the launch and a detailed explanation of what success looks like for the mission.

This has to be measured against the knowledge that no first-time rocket from a new market entrant has ever reached orbit on its first flight. Even Space X’s original Falcon One got to orbit only with its fourth flight.

There are a series of events that occur on any flight to orbit, and each delivers a lot of data, and a lot of lessons.

In some detail Adam set out these different events, from “getting off the pad” to the point less than a minute after launch when the vehicle is under maximum dynamic pressure, and then to stage separations.

It is worth listening to. Setting expectations and measuring success is both straight forward and complex. There are no caveats. The expectation when it launches is that it gets to orbit. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be launched.

And success, ultimately, for a commercial launch vehicle is measured by delivering its payload to designated orbits.

But the explanation of everything that happens after launch is fascinating. (Spoiler alert: “If our second stage lights up, it’s party time ….”)

In his interview with InnovastionAus.com, Adam Gilmour says the Eris vehicle is 100 per cent designed in Australia – including the rocket motors and the avionics – and 60 to 70 per cent manufactured in Australia, and obviously 100 per cent of the final integration is done in this country.

Gilmour Space is a fascinating case study in sovereign capability development. The company has effectively learned by doing, and every part of component that can be made here, Gilmour has sought to make here, either in-house or through on of its local partners.

While the company bought two payload fairings for its first two launches, it has undertaken to design and built its future payload fairings in-house.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with Adam Gilmour

“Even on the avionic systems, we might buy chips from overseas and some receivers, but we put it all together in the avionics box. And you know, the putting it together is how it all works,” Adam Gilmour said.

“And so we already do that. We’ve got a really strong depth of technological capability in the company already.”

After eight years building toward the launch of an orbital vehicle, Director of Launch Facilities James Gilmour clearly recognises the importance of the moment.

“For us now to be at the final stages of integration and for us to essentially be on the countdown of launching a 24 meter fully-fuelled vehicle that will weigh about 33 tons, hopefully to low earth orbit, I think is quite significant,” James Gilmour said.

“For us to have said this is what we’re gonna do, and to now be at a stage where we’re actually going to do it is significant,” he said.

James Gilmour, who has been building the facilities at the Bowen Orbital Spaceport in readiness for launch, is hoping the Eris launch will attract a crowd and bring some tourists into North Queensland.

He says if 150,000 people can front up to watch the launch of the commercial crew at Space X in Florida as they did during Covid, then maybe 5,000 or 10,000 people “might visit Bowen to watch rockets leave earth”.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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