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Friday, Jun 9, 2023

NASA Grant Pushes Frontier into Deep Space

Most entrepreneurs don’t spend time contemplating the market possibilities of interplanetary space, but for Jim McKinnon it’s central to his young company Frontier Aerospace Corp. The Simi Valley research firm is developing rockets to control the orientation of spacecraft using the least expensive but still reliable propellant. “We are going to try to be the SpaceX of in-space propulsion,” McKinnon said, referring to the Hawthorne company started by billionaire Elon Musk that has disrupted the space industry with its rocket launches to place satellites in orbit and take equipment to the International Space Station. The most recent development for Frontier is receiving a Small Business Technology Transfer grant from NASA for $120,000 to develop a propellant that can be used in the freezing conditions of deep space exploration. It is the first of that type of grant that Frontier and McKinnon have received. The phase one grant makes McKinnon eligible to apply for a phase two grant, with an amount of up to $750,000. Financing for Frontier comes from the tech transfer and other grants, plus revenue from consulting work on computer-aided design for Miller Industries Inc., a towing and recovery equipment manufacturer in Tennessee. Also, Frontier has licensed out some of the components it developed to several companies that McKinnon could not name. Tim Pourpoint, associate professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University, in Lafayette, Ind., is working with Frontier on tests for the deep space oxidizer propellant. He has worked with Frontier and McKinnon on another project sponsored by a consortium of government agencies to develop less toxic rocket propellants. “He is aware of the capabilities we have at my lab here at Purdue,” Pourpoint said. “It was a logical fit for us to continue to work together.” Oxidizer testing McKinnon worked for 10 years for Rocketdyne, first when the rocket engine maker was owned by Rockwell International and later Boeing Co. It is now known as Aerojet Rocketdyne with a campus in Chatsworth. While at Rocketdyne, McKinnon worked on the space shuttle main engines and received a patent for an injector that reduced the number of parts needed from more than 1,000 to just five. “We were trying for low cost and high performance and was able to do both,” McKinnon said. He left the San Fernando Valley company in 1998 to do consulting work for an Orange County aerospace startup. At the same time, he started a firm called Frontier Engineering as a sole proprietorship. In 2014, realizing that he needed to hire employees, he changed the company’s name to Frontier Aerospace and changed the business into an S corporation. During the Frontier Engineering phase, McKinnon received three Small Business Innovation Research grants totaling almost $1.2 million from the Missile Defense Agency. While working on the components associated with the grants, a company he had been working with bailed out at the last minute on making an injector, leading McKinnon to have to make the part himself. “That allowed me to create the technology that I have now built the company (Frontier Aerospace) on,” he added. Currently, McKinnon is working on engineering work and manufacturing of small 12-inch thruster engines. For the NASA grant. McKinnon and his team of eight employees and seven part-time contractors are working with an oxidizer known as MON-25, or a mixture of nitrogen tetroxide with 25 percent nitric oxide. An oxidizer is an agent that releases oxygen for combination with a fuel. “The benefit is that it reduces the freezing point of the oxidizer,” said Purdue’s Pourpoint. MON-25 has a freezing point of -67 degrees Fahrenheit as opposed to other oxidizers with freezing points of 10 degrees Fahrenheit, which means that a spacecraft powered by it does not have to use a lot of power to heat the chemical. This results in having more power for scientific instruments and sending back photos and videos, McKinnon said. “NASA really liked that,” he added. The grant money will specifically fund research on the full properties of MON-25. Studies of the oxidizer dating back to the 1960s had gaps in the fluid test data. A full set of the MON-25 properties should confirm that the 1960s-era data is correct. “It is clear if we want to use those oxidizers reliably in space or on the surface of Mars or anywhere else, we need to know those properties very well,” Pourpoint said. Among the properties that Pourpoint will test for are density, viscosity, vapor pressure and the ability to conduct and retain heat. Purdue will use its laboratory to test MON-25 to look for the properties as McKinnon directs them. Purdue is a subcontractor to Frontier for these tests, which are not done in Simi Valley because of the toxic nature of the oxidizer, McKinnon said. Small innovation Even under its old name, McKinnon’s company has always been in Simi Valley. In January, it moved into the space it now occupies in a business park at 4109 Guardian St. Vice President Kevin Schoonover found the location, which allows the both engineering work and manufacturing onsite. Brian Gabler, an assistant city manager, said that Simi Valley has always prided itself on the diverse employment base with an economy that is not heavily dependent on any one industry sector. Still, the city started out with a lot of employers in aerospace and continues to that pattern with Frontier. “We encourage their growth and success in the community,” Gabler said. “They bring good-paying jobs and bring a quality workforce that we are looking for to expand our economic vitality.” If there is anything that other businesses can learn from what Frontier has accomplished in its nearly four years of existence, it’s that nothing is impossible. Even with large players like Aerojet Rocketdyne and SpaceX, there are ways to find less expensively and responsive solutions, McKinnon said. “That is another reason why we have these contracts,” he added. “NASA appreciated the responsiveness that we have.” Still, there have been challenges for the startup. One is establishing the business relationships to get the customers that create the cash flow to keep the company going. Another is government regulations. McKinnon said he easily spent a year learning how to do the proper but complex accounting to show what the costs are for the services provided to the government and that Frontier was charging the right amount. About two years after starting the company, he found software to automate the process. “They were a godsend,” McKinnon said. “It was worth every penny for that software.” In Southern California, the space portion of the aerospace industry is having its most productive time since the 1990s, McKinnon said. With SpaceX and United Launch Alliance regularly sending rockets into space and Aerojet Rocketdyne working on the engines for NASA’s next heavy launch rocket, the Space Launch System, people are realizing there are new models to replace the old one of government contractors. The commercial demand for rockets may lead to NASA wanting to land payloads on the moon, McKinnon said. “Because of that, all these small companies are starting up and you need rocket propulsion to do it,” he added.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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