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Western Pa. couple shoot to win Google Lunar XPRIZE on humble budget

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, 6:06 p.m.
Interorbital Systems, founded by Western Pennsylvania natives Roderick and Randa Milliron, launched its first rocket in 2014, nearly 20 years after the couple founded the company. The two hope to fly to moon this year as part of Team Synergy, a competitor in the Google Lunar XPRIZE.
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Interorbital Systems, founded by Western Pennsylvania natives Roderick and Randa Milliron, launched its first rocket in 2014, nearly 20 years after the couple founded the company. The two hope to fly to moon this year as part of Team Synergy, a competitor in the Google Lunar XPRIZE.
Interorbital Systems’ rocket in flight during the company’s first launch in 2014.
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Interorbital Systems’ rocket in flight during the company’s first launch in 2014.
Western Pennsylvania natives Roderick and Randa Milliron pose in front of a rocket engine. The couple founded Interorbital Systems about 20 years ago and are competing in the Google Lunar XPrize race to the moon.
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Western Pennsylvania natives Roderick and Randa Milliron pose in front of a rocket engine. The couple founded Interorbital Systems about 20 years ago and are competing in the Google Lunar XPrize race to the moon.
Looking down on Earth from Interorbital System’s rocket launch in 2014.
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Looking down on Earth from Interorbital System’s rocket launch in 2014.
Roderick Milliron climbs Interorbital Systems’ rocket before the company’s first launch in 2014.
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Roderick Milliron climbs Interorbital Systems’ rocket before the company’s first launch in 2014.
A drawing of Interorbital Systems’ Neptune 3 rocket. The Neptune 3 rocket consists of three Common Propulsion Modules bundled together. A larger Neptune 8 rocket will be used for the team’s XPRIZE flight.
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A drawing of Interorbital Systems’ Neptune 3 rocket. The Neptune 3 rocket consists of three Common Propulsion Modules bundled together. A larger Neptune 8 rocket will be used for the team’s XPRIZE flight.

In the California desert, a pair of Western Pennsylvania natives have their sights set on the moon.

Roderick and Randa Relich Milliron have been at work for more than 20 years on a do-it-yourself rocket system that they hope will head to the moon twice this year.

Interorbital Systems, started in 1996, is part of Synergy Moon, a international collaboration of scientists and companies competing as a team to win the $20 million grand prize in Google's race to the moon.

"The moon has always been our goal," Randa Milliron told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on the phone from Interorbital headquarters at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif.

Five teams remain in Lunar XPRIZE. To win, a team must land on the moon, travel 500 meters across its surface and send high-definition video and images back to Earth by the end of 2017.

"I know one way or another, we will do this mission," said Kevin Myrick, a founder and team leader of Synergy Moon.

Astrobotic, a Carnegie Mellon University spinoff company headquartered in the Strip District, bowed out of the competition in December when CEO John Thornton said the company would not be ready for a 2017 launch. Thornton doubted any team would land on the moon in 2017.

"He's a dropout," Randa Milliron said of Thornton quitting the competition and criticized him for disparaging the work of the other teams. "He knows nothing about how we're doing."

Milliron, however, acknowledged that landing on the moon and completing the XPRIZE requirements by the end of the year will be tough. Space is tough, she said.

"It will be close. I keep hoping they will extend the time, and I think everyone is hoping they can do that," she said.

The XPRIZE has made no mention of extending the timeline.

Interorbital has about 12 employees. Randa Milliron is from Belle Vernon and serves as the company's CEO. Her husband, Roderick Milliron, is from Mt. Pleasant. He is the chief designer and engineer. Roderick Milliron graduated from the University of Pittsburgh after studying applied mathematics, computer programming and physics and later worked for Grumman and General Dynamics. Randa Milliron graduated from Duquesne University with a master's degree in African language.

"Kind of far flung from space endeavors," Randa Milliron joked.

The Millirons were playing in an electro-industrial band in the 1980s and 1990s, splitting time between Berlin and Los Angeles, when a friend told them about a group of rocket scientists working in California's Mojave Desert. The band, H-Bomb White Noise, checked it out. There were a couple of rocket stands, a Quonset hut and "this hardcore industrial activity that sort of goes with our music," Randa Milliron said.

They were hooked.

"All that adventure attached to it. It was high romance. It was irresistible," Milliron said.

The Millirons started spending more time in the desert with members of the Pacific Rocket Society. In 1995, they built and fired their first rocket engine. They founded Interorbital Systems a year later and had their first launch in 1999.

Space travel at that time was still dominated by the government. The commercial space industry had yet to take off.

"We felt kind of like pirates or renegades making these powerful machines and realizing we could do it ourselves," Randa Milliron said. "I guess it was really the beginning of the DIY or the commercial space movement."

Fifteen years later, having to take jobs as movie extras at times and selling do-it-yourself satellite building kits that they will launch for $8,000 to raise money for their company, the Millirons launched their first NEPTUNE rocket component.

The Millirons aren't billionaires like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, or Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX. They build their rockets from the ground up in-house, using off-the-shelf, non-aerospace components whenever possible to keep the cost down. When they can't afford a part, they learn how to make it.

They build modular rockets out of Common Propulsion Modules, or CPM, which are basically giant propellant containers, Randa Milliron said. Strap together three CPM and you have a NEPTUNE 3, a rocket capable of taking a 12-kilogram payload into low-Earth orbit for between $500,000 and $750,000, Randa Milliron said. Eight CMPs, a NEPTUNE 8, can carry a payload to the moon for less than $5 million, the Millirons hope. Team Synergy will use a NEPTUNE 8 for its XPRIZE flight.

And to save even more money, Interorbital isn't going to launch from a traditional space port such as Vandenberg Air Force Base, about a three-hour trip along the coast from Los Angeles where a launch can cost $3 million, but from the middle of the ocean.

"We are disrupters," Randa Milliron said. "We are showing this can be done at radically, radically lower costs."

Myrick said there's a lot to like about Interorbital's approach to rockets. The modular design makes scaling pervious successes possible. The company's scrappy, do-it-yourself attitude allows it to offer launches at a fraction of the cost of other space companies, and it doesn't rely on venture capital for funding.

Myrick said success in the XPRIZE will depend on securing enough money for the launch. He wouldn't say how much is needed.

Interorbital has four high-profile launches. The company will test its guidance system this spring with a suborbital launch that will carry 11 small satellites payloads. The Millirons hope their first orbital flight will be in late summer.

In the third quarter of this year, Interorbital will launch its Lunar Bullet mission, a rocket shot directly at the moon and aimed to slam into the lunar surface. The company's XPRIZE launch will happen by the end of the year, Milliron hopes. A NEPTUNE 8 rocket will fly to the moon, launch a lander that will deploy a rover to roll across the surface, snap a few photos and maybe some video, and win the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE in the process.

But even that, Milliron said, is a test.

"Everything we're doing is a test launch for the next phase," she said.

The company has two more moon missions planned for 2018, one that will return samples from the moon to Earth.

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