(Tina Sjogren) Russia and China hustle to colonize the moon and no one is sure what NASA is up to. Meanwhile rocket science goes private, and it's a global thing.
His company joined the Ansari X PRIZE in 2002 and went on to become one of the leading contenders. Now he wants to build a supersonic high altitude airplane and win the Google Lunar X Prize competition.
Here goes an ExWeb interview with Romanian engineer Dumitru Popescu who dropped out of school to take on a national space industry at the tender age of 21.
ExplorersWeb: You left University in your third year of Aerospace Engineering to found ARCA. Why the hurry :)?
Dumitru: It was the right time to leave everything to establish the organization known as ARCA. The priority was to make something constructive and to exchange study for practice. The objective was to increase the low level of space activities in Romania.
I knew my priorities and was not affraid of new things. Studying did not manage to satisfy my desire for innovation.
ExplorersWeb: You are working outside the Romanian government space program (they are connected to ESA), why did you choose to set up your own shop instead of a career there, with all their resources?
Dumitru: Being an entrepreneur, in a situation where activity in the Romanian aerospace industry was very low it was natural to create a private organization to do the government’s job.
Furthermore, working for the government in Romania means stagnation and having to depend on others who most of the time don't agree with you. While it's true that funding exists in the public sector, it's very badly spent.
Creating a private aerospace organization in Romania and promoting its activity fitted with the global trend of private companies that build and launch space rockets.
The situation is similar to the birth of flight and modern aviation at the begining of the XX century. We live in an era where governments no longer have the capabilities to manage resources in the spaceflight domain and gradually turn them over to private endeavours who can explore space with lower resources and more flexibility.
We are productive, we go forward in this formula, without including the Romanian government. But this does not mean that we do not cooperate with governmental institutions abroad.
Not long ago, ARCA signed a 1.1 million dollar contract with the European Space Agency to test flight equipments for the ExoMars program that aims at exploring Mars in 2016 and 2018.
ExplorersWeb: What was it like to dream big during communism and challenge the establishment, how did it affect ARCA development?
Dumitru: ARCA was established by a group of students at the Aerospace Faculty, ten years after the fall of communism. We dreamt big during that period through
child’s eyes because we were too young. We all wanted to be pilots and astronauts, and to build big rockets and spaceplanes.
ExplorersWeb.com: 14 years later, how is it going? Any regrets?
Dumitru: The aerospace industry was very strong and well established during communism. It then gradually declined to a point where no new aircrafts were manufactured, no new designs were tested and the industry was limited to maintenance of the few remaining functional planes.
This at least we regret very much. During communism Romania had a very powerfull air force and serious research.
ExplorersWeb.com: Did forcing your private space company through an eastern block mindset set you back; or did the challenge make you stronger - in fact cutting you an advantage over your free market competitors today?
Dumitru: I think both. We had to face a mentality that often was against us and it wasn’t easy. We fought not only a battle of innovation, but also against the old mentality that we tried to change and educate. This challenge made us stronger than other competitors.
We have abilities that other teams don't: we work like there's a war and we want to win. We like to overcome difficulties, we get past them and land on our feet, despite the obstacles.
ExplorersWeb: In US private space used to be frowned on, if not vigorously discouraged, by the big aerospace companies. These days private space initiatives are encouraged, with NASA bankrolling and helping the projects. I noticed you got a contract with your government in 2005, are they helpful to ARCA?
Dumitru: Unfortunately, ARCA is not supported by their government like private organizations are in other countries.
The few research contracts that ARCA obtained from the Romanian government in the past were not productive because of gaps in the bureaucratic system. In the United States NASA firmly supports private initiatives in space exploration and flight. In Romania, the government is not only disinterested but also placing obstacles in your path.
ExplorersWeb: What is the general state of aerospace in Romania?
Dumitru: Except for ARCA, which is unique, the aerospace domain in Romania is close to nonexistent. A lot of money is spent on research but without any real results. Romania needs more time to change that mentality.
ExplorersWeb: How are you financed?
Dumitru: ARCA is mostly financed by sponsors and donations. Most our funds come from private companies in Romania.
ExplorersWeb: You have a degree in theology (as does your chemical engineer Teodor). Space and religion - really? Tell us more about your thinking!
Dumitru: My colleague and I went to the Theology Faculty wishing mostly to improve our general knowledge. My great passion since I was a child was to build rockets.
The Theology Faculty did nothing to help me in this endeavour. It only made me look to the sky more often, only from a different perspective.
ExplorersWeb: Which Sci-fi/Space pioneers have you read? Who impressed you most?
Dumitru: Artur C Clarke, I think. Hermann Oberth is the founding father of space flight.
ExplorersWeb: You guys have been working a lot with the rockoon concept. Mid November you helped in a parachute jump from 4000 meters (manufacturing the reading instruments). What is your take on Felix Baumgartner's 40 000 meter jump?
Dumitru: Felix Baumgartner is very courageous. His accomplishment will always remain a useful study for space related activities and for aeronautic medicine.
ExplorersWeb: Lately though you are working on the IAR-111 supersonic aircraft. Why the change of heart?
Dumitru: IAR-111 is close to our heart, a long-term project that ARCA really believes in. At this point Romania does not have a Romanian built supersonic plane. ARCA wants to develop this plane as a platform for space tourism and other space related research.
ExplorersWeb: The soul of ARCA is your Executor rocket engine. How is it different from other engines out there?
Dumitru: Executor will be the backbone of all space vehicles and projects developed at ARCA. It will even power the IAR-111 supersonic plane. It's different from other engines for its low cost of manufacturing.
Reducing orbital launch costs and making spaceflight more accessible is at the center of our vision. We tried to make it as simple as possible, so that all components could be manufactured at ARCA. Not relying on manufacturing contractors greatly reduced the overall price.
ExplorersWeb: You hope to deliver to LEO with the Haas 2 and the Super Haas rockets. What's your take on SpaceX (also private) and other delivery systems out there? How do you hope to be different?
Dumitru: We hope to be different by reducing launch costs. Early commercial flight was very risky and few could afford it. Decreasing prices brought more passengers and the planes became a lot safer.
We want a growing number of people to travel to space and for that we have to reduce costs and increase safety.
We achieve it by reducing the number of components, using composite materials instead of metal, building almost all parts locally and adding more safety systems.
IAR-111 has three safety systems for example: a crew capsule ejection system, a plane recovery parachute and an anti stall parachute.
ExplorersWeb: Your plans for 2013?
Dumitru: An orbital launch, the maiden flight of the Haas 2C rocket and our first orbital flight.
ExplorersWeb: You met Alex Gavan at a Ted conference and you two seem to have hit it off: do you envision explorers such as Gavan having a place in space travel or will we continue sending fighter pilots, scientists
Dumitru: We intend to open space travel to everyone and especially explorers like Alex Gavan. We need people like him for their courage and vision. Pilots and scientists will of course be necessary to ensure the safety of the flight and for the scientific experiments onboard.
ExplorersWeb: What's your take on the latest one-stage rocket and the fusion-fuel experiments?
Dumitru: Haas 2C has a single stage to orbit variant. It has the advantage of decreased cost and increased reliability but a much smaller payload. It is possible because of the use of composite materials that make the overall weight of the rocket very low.
Fusion is the future, both on Earth and in space, but it requires enormous amounts of funding to research and decades of work to make it practical. We doubt we will see fusion powered spacecraft in our lifetime.
ExplorersWeb: Finally, what would you like to have accomplished at the end of your life? Any plans to travel to space yourself?
Dumitru: Towards the end of my life I would like to travel to Europa, Jupiter’s satellite, that is supposed to have a liquid ocean underneath its thick icy crust. I would like to travel there with my wife and see the local dolphins :)
If anyone can afford to travel by plane these days, a concept that was unthinkable 100 years ago, I dare to think I would have the possibility to travel into space, for tourism, maybe with my personal spacecraft.
Resident of Valcea, Romania, Dumitru Popescu (35 y) enjoys modelism, latest technology, and sci fi movies. Beside ARCA he's working on a feature film about ARCA's Helen; the first Romanian space rocket launched on October 1, 2010, at an altitude of 40 000 m from the Black Sea. The suborbital rocket is a technological demonstrator for the Google Lunar X Prize.
Food: Pizza, lasagna.
Music: Queen, IRIS, symphonies, etc.
Movie: Star Trek and Star Wars.
About ARCA from from googlelunarxprize.org:
Headquartered in Valcea, Romania, ARCA’s Demonstrator 2B rocket, equipped with the world's first composite materials reusable monopropellant engine ever to fly, was successfully launched in 2004 from the Black Sea shore.
Stabilo, a two stage manned suborbital air launched vehicle completed three flights until now. The first stage is world's largest Solar Montgolfier balloon and the second stage is a rocket powered manned spaceship.
Haas is an innovative air-launched, 3 stages orbital rocket, preliminary designed in 2006 using the technology developed at ARCA during The Ansari X Prize Competition. The main objective of this rocket is to send to the Moon the European Lunar Explorer vehicle and to win the Google Lunar X Prize Competition.
IAR-111 is a program that aims to create a supersonic high altitude airplane intended to extend ARCA’s HAAS II rocket launch capabilities in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, and for developing space tourism related technologies.
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