On a cold January morning on the outskirts of Limestone, Maine, an assortment of engineers and aerospace enthusiasts gathered for an improbable rocket launch. What distinguished this endeavour from your average Cape Canaveral launch was not the frigid temperature, nor the lack of support from public entities like NASA or billionaire-funded heavy hitters like SpaceX and Blue Origin. Rather, this particular launch piqued the interest of the aerospace community because of the rocket’s fuel: bio-derived, nontoxic, and nearly carbon neutral.
It’s easy to get swept away by the romance of space travel. From the moon landing to the mania surrounding the Mars One fiasco, humans tend to indulge their wildest fantasies in the cosmos. But aerospace has a dirty secret. Traditional rockets pump the atmosphere full of black carbon and alumina—potent greenhouse gases. If SpaceX achieves its stated goal of 1,000 launches per year, some scientists predict this activity alone could cause global temperatures to rise as much as 1°C.
Enter bluShift Aerospace, a company based in Brunswick, Maine, with the laudable dream of cleaning up the industry one rocket at a time. CEO and founder Sascha Deri had an epiphany nearly 10 years ago on his brother’s organic farm near Brunswick. He encountered a particular plant—whose identity remains a secret to the public—and hypothesized that it might make an ideal base for rocket fuel. After years of testing, Deri’s far-fetched dream became a reality: the bio-derived fuel was the force behind a successful commercial launch in January 2021 and several larger-scale tests in the succeeding months.
According to Deri, the mystery fuel has a number of advantages. It doesn’t take much to produce it, the reason it wouldn’t be carbon neutral is transportation, it’s nontoxic, and it’s not explosive. “You can easily handle it,” he says. “In fact, you can store it in a closet, and nothing bad would happen. So it’s remarkably benign. And I even saw one of the core substances from our fuel in a candy I was eating a few weekends ago.”
While the public puzzles over the identity of this enigmatic ingredient, bluShift is charging forward with plans for a two-stage suborbital launch vehicle called the Starless Rogue, with launches slated for later this year. The company hopes to capitalize on the burgeoning small-satellite and CubeSat market, catering mostly to researchers and academics. Building on the success of Deri’s renewable energy company, AltE, bluShift’s lean team of 12 employees plans to make future operations as sustainable as possible.
“Our rocket engine test stand is powered by solar,” Deri says. “When we have our mobile marine launch platform, while the engines to get it into place will be petroleum initially, the systems onboard will be battery-based and have solar. Our mission control centre will also be solar-powered. So we will be using renewable energy throughout our operations. In fact, 300 feet to my right is a 1.5-megawatt solar farm, which powers much of this former navy campus where we are stationed.”
BluShift also employs an easily reusable metal fuselage that can withstand harsh marine environments, cutting down on materials-related emissions. Deri is considering bio-derived resins for use in a composite fuselage down the road. Staying true to its Maine roots, bluShift will recover marine debris with a fleet of local lobster boats. For the bluShift team, sustainability is a non-negotiable aspect of their mission.
By all appearances, that mission statement is rippling through the aerospace industry. After bluShift’s first launch, Deri witnessed a shift in the industry. “We saw in our industry media [that] suddenly the conversation shifted towards how can the bigger rocket companies be more sustainable? What are they doing?” he says. “So I probably can’t claim full credit, but I think we were influential in terms of forcing the larger rocket companies to consider what are they going to do exactly to become more sustainable.”
After raising more than a million dollars from everyday people and an undisclosed amount of private funding, bluShift is primed to bring its unique combination of space exploration and environmentalism to the mainstream. The dream that began many years ago on an organic farm shows no signs of slowing down as it erupts into the exosphere.
While eager scientists can book bluShift’s rockets years in advance, Deri’s concerns are more terrestrial. He hopes to foster the fledgling aerospace community in his native Maine with good jobs, ethical business practices, and a healthy dose of hometown pride. “We’ve heard from our customers is that they’re tired of going to dirty, dusty, old deserts to do their launches, and they’re looking forward to the ability to enjoy the great state of Maine and maybe even have a lobster roll after the launch.”
If bluShift prevails, it may be emblematic of an entirely new way of reaching for the cosmos while focusing on community and maintaining a livable planet back home.
Images courtesy of Lindsay Becker / bluShift Aerospace.