By Brad Smith | May 01, 2017
Rocket engine testing
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Products: Rocket engine testing
The airport serving Durango lies about 15 miles southeast of the city, with clear views of the San Juan Mountains to the north. It can be very quiet in this remote spot. But, if you listen carefully, you might hear the sounds of a rocket engine, the kind used on missions to other planets.
No, this isn't a spaceport. It's the rocket test facility operated since 2009 by Advanced Mobile Propulsion Test LLC, or AMPT. Southwestern Colorado may seem an unlikely spot for testing rocket engines, especially those used for spaceflight, but Barnes, the company's founder, president, and chief engineer, has a simple explanation: "It's one of the most beautiful places on the planet."
There's a little more to it than that, including the fact that Barnes moved to Durango in 2004 because some of his family had also moved to the area.
Natural beauty and family lured Barnes to this spot and he stayed to create AMPT. His company has won customers like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Aerojet Rocketdyne, the Missile Defense Agency, Raytheon, and Boeing.
It has been quite a journey for Barnes, who was born and grew up in Kenya, leaving only for a few years to go to high school in Washington, D.C. Returning to Nairobi, he became an aircraft mechanic and then returned to school at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, graduating magna cum laude in 1998 in aeronautical and astronautical engineering.
Barnes worked for what was then Boeing Rocketdyne for five years in Los Angeles as a propulsion systems development engineer before moving to Durango. At Boeing Rocketdyne his projects included work on the space shuttle engines. When he got to Durango, Barnes created his own propulsion consulting company, DMX Engineering, using the skills and contacts he had honed with Boeing Rocketdyne.
"I was working as a consultant on projects that needed test services," he says. "I was going out to various test facilities around the country, including NASA and private companies. They didn't have the capability and cost metrics and schedules to support the programs I was working on. I had experience with different test stands and had some ideas how to do it better."
Lacking business experience but seeing a need for rocket propulsion test services, Barnes developed a rudimentary business plan and took it to the Small Business Development Center at Fort Lewis College in Durango. After getting positive feedback, Barnes secured Small Business Administration and private loans to start AMPT.
Among AMPT's early supporters was Holt Sheet Metal of Durango, founded in 1955. Holt Sheet Metal, which has expanded its operations as AMPT grew, has done 80 percent of the test equipment construction. "They've improved their machining capability and have significant capability in Durango now," Barnes says. Holt now exports to customers in Japan, South Africa, Brazil, France, Mexico, and New Zealand.
AMPT also has a test facility in the Mojave Desert of Southern California and works with test facilities at several locations, including White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, Edwards Air Force Base in California, Aerojet Rocketdyne facilities in California and Washington state, and Moog's test facility in New York state.
AMPT has a multitude of test services for hypergolic propellant rocket engines, with hypergolic referring to propellants that ignite spontaneously when they come into contact with each other. The company's test facility simulates all launch and in-space operations, taking as many as 350 different measurements in just a few seconds of testing. The largest engine tested at the site weighed 700 pounds.
The facility includes a "test cell" where the rocket engine is tested plus a control room that monitors the test and allows the test personnel to monitor the test. Much of the facility's components are mobile so they can be taken to a customer's location if necessary.
As with any startup, AMPT faces challenges, mostly in the business area. The company has an excellent technological portfolio but needs to focus its efforts better, he says.
Looking back, Barnes says AMPT tried to grow too quickly "without having a really well-defined target market and we ended up going through a lot of resources at a high rate before having to cut back and refocus on a target."
Barnes and AMPT have been successful enough that Barnes was selected Entrepreneur of the Year for 2015 by the Durango Chamber of Commerce and also recognized for the company's achievements by Gov. John Hickenlooper, who toured the company's facilities.
AMPT is awaiting a decision from NASA on a contract proposal that would have a major impact on the company's future. AMPT's competition are big aerospace companies like Moog and Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Challenges: "Business development," says Barnes. "Technically we have a very good system and capabilities but we haven't marketed it the way we need to. So, getting consistent revenue has been challenging and aerospace is particularly known for its up and down swings and political cycles."
Opportunities: "We're actively working on a significant proposal that will take our business to a next level," says Barnes. "We are partnering with another organization [the engineering services company Frontier Aerospace Corp. of Simi Valley, California] and we make a perfect match working with each other . . . to be a new thruster provider for U.S. space systems."
Needs: "We need NASA to buy into the fact that a small company can do this work," Barnes contends. "It doesn't have to be a very large company. They [NASA] have to have faith in small companies for this to happen. They have legitimate concerns whether we can deliver and have staying power but we believe we can be a very reliable source. Our competitors don't have the flexibility and cost efficiencies that we have. We can accommodate much better than the big guys."