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Space power couples meet at Mojave Spaceport

Published on:
October 31st 2019

The only husband-and-wife teams in Space?

Space is hard. Marriage is harder. Even in science fiction, you’ll have a tough time to find happily married space explorers and superheroes.

In real life, we only know of two husband-and-wife teams where both partners are equally active in Space. Yesterday we met "the other couple" in their workshop at the legendary Mojave Spaceport (“Imagination flies here”).

Rod and Randa Milliron founded Interorbital systems in 1996. That same year, after failing to land a job at Netscape, Elon Musk launched Zip2. Music record promoter Richard Branson bought a small European airline and renamed it Virgin Express. Two years prior, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon out of his garage in Seattle. It was the year of Into Thin Air and Tom and I arrived at Mount Everest for the first time.

In 1999 we built a wifi network to the summit of Everest and that year the Millirons had their first successful launch.

As we roamed the world, out in the Mojave desert Rod and Randa saw it all in their own backyard. The funky Rotary Rocket Roton. Rutan brothers' around-the-world hot air balloon quests and non-stop record flights. White Knight and SpaceshipOne. XCOR Lynx miniature rocketplane. Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch (the world’s largest airplane with a wingspan of 385 feet). Virgin Galactic escapades.

We skied to the North Pole, hacking Compaq pocket PCs for the first live expedition dispatches from the Arctic Ocean; Rod and Randa built rockets inspired by the first private space launch company in the world, headed by a mysterious German profile named Lutz Kayser.

Advised by Wernher von Braun no less, Kayser’s goal was low-cost satellite launch vehicles - in the 1970s! A plot straight out of a Tom Clancy novel eventually compelled the German inventor to set up shop in Zaire (now Congo) and later Lybia. Despite successful flights and engine tests, pressure from several big nations finally forced Lutz to seize operations in 1987. He died in 2017.

The Millirons continue Lutz Kayser's unconventional and simple path. The design consists of slim pipes stacked together, run on hypergolic propellant without the need of turbopumps. The modular approach inspired also game developer John Carmack (Doom, Quake) while he was still active in Armadillo Aerospace. “I am quite convinced that this is the lowest development cost route to significant orbital capability,” he said back in 2006 of Lutz design.

These days the Millirons use their vast experience to create a complete Space package. The shop sports a lunar lander, various rockets, engines, and tanks - the Interorbitals do it all. A young French engineer on the team showed off the sexiest CubeSats we’ve seen yet. Vertical trailers outside the Interorbital lab transport rockets to and from test launches in the desert. The end goal is a lunar base, a spaceship afloat in Venus atmosphere, Mars and the moons of Jupiter.

We got to know the couple as our competitors on the Darpa launch challenge which by the way seems to be falling apart: Out of the three finalists, two - Virgin and Vector - have bailed and the last remaining, a "stealth" company, has yet to come up with a name.

Some space companies are not about space at all, but valuations, buy-outs, exits, and IPOs. Other companies really build things. Interorbital have witnessed the rise and fall of both sorts, while they remain standing. The greatest marriages are built on great teamwork, perhaps that’s the Milliron secret sauce.

Tina Sjogren
Tina Sjogren
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Tina (left) and the Interorbitals firing up the home-built filament winder, capable of manufacturing some of the strongest and lightest propellant tanks.

IOS have dedicated test sites at the Mojave Air and Space Port for test firing of their rocket engines. Injectors are CNCd in aluminum and nozzles are ablative for high performance and fast production.

Interorbital highly affordable CubeSat kits made of custom-printed circuit boards and precision laser-cut aluminum components.

Rendering Neptune 5 launch. The design consists of slim pipes stacked together, run on hypergolic propellant without the need of turbopumps. The modular approach also inspired game developer John Carmack (Doom, Quake).

(L-R) Team Interorbital: Ian Price, CPM 2.0 design and launch software development; Bryant Avalos, propulsion, filament-winder design and composite manufacturing; Sylvain Burdot, electronic hardware and software design for satellite and rocket control systems; Randa Milliron, business and contracts; Rod Milliron, CTO with B.S in Applied Mathematics and Physics; Erik Reedy, former NASA contractor on the Space Shuttle program, mechanical fabrication, welding, and composite manufacture. Tina Sjogren, Pythom Inc far right. Pythom Inc.