Engineering student whose hero is Elon Musk of SpaceX wants to build a rocket from Canterbury, will the crowd fund him?

Image owned by SpaceX
Iain Finer is studying by day at the University of Canterbury for an engineering degree. By night, he dreams about being in space, and is working on his life-long passion – that of building a rocket of his very own.

Iain Finer with his rocket engine

He has built a proto-type of a liquid fuel engine (X1000F-3) and is seeking to raise $7000 from Spark’s crowdfunding platform, SparkMyPotential, to conduct trial runs on the rocket's engine. The crowd has pledged $3,861 as of Oct 27.

Idealog recently caught up with Finer to find out more about his obsession with rockets, space, and anything that goes up, up and away.

Finer is a serious McCoy – he has spent most of his adult life working around things-engineering and things aeronautical.He has had a consultancy for aircraft servicing, and worked at Air NZ as an aircraft service engineers. While working, he has gathered experience on aircraft engines including the CFM56 and V2500 turbo engines, and engines used on A320, B737, among others.

What’s behind the prototype he has built? Finer says liquid fuel engines are not very typical. Most rocket engines built by hobbyists (yes, you can build one by googling  manuals available on the internet if you are into that kind of thing) are based on solid fuels which in Finer’s words “are easy to do”.

With liquid fuel engine he is trying to build, he is using two different propellants (ethanol and water) to power the engine, and using liquid oxygen as the oxidiser.

 

This baby needs to be tested

Iain Finer explains his rocket engine

To tell him he has got things right, he and a friend working on the project, need to first run tests which involve monitoring a complex set of data using electronic sensors. The combination of propellants used in his engine is very similar to the combination of propellants the Germans used on their V2 rockets during World War II.

Some of the challenges he has to overcome include ensuring the engine does what it is supposed to do – that involves going at the speed it is supposed to, the engine cooling down the way it is supposed to and not melt in the process; and how to test the engine safely, among others.

Is his quest a loopy one? Not at all, he says. There is real science behind his proto type. His problem is he hasn’t got sufficient financials to help him test his “rocket” engine. Studying at the university, doing homework and passing exams have been his life for the most of the academic year. “It is quite hard after you have been part of the workforce for 9 years,” says Finer, who is 29 years.

“I built the engine based on my understanding of the science – and there is enough literature around for me to give it a first go.”

He draws inspiration from the parameters of science around the 1960s LR101 Vernier engine which helped steer the Atlas-series rockets. The Atlas rockets, according to reports on the internet, have in the last 50 years achieved over 600 successful launches.

The Atlas was also the engine that powered America’s astronaut John Glenn into space orbit in 1962.

Finer hopes to first test the engine on the ground, with a horizontal thrust. “From that, I hope to measure the performance of the engine, and relate the results on computers.”

If the engine works, it will go into the making of the rocket, he says. If it doesn't, it will be back to the drawing board.

Don't tell me it can't be done

Don’t tell him it can’t be done. Finer’s hero is Elon Musk, the guy who dreamt up Pay Pal for the world, the guy who wants to colonise Mars, and also the founder of SpaceX. SpaceX is a rocket company that has successfully launched and returned a craft - something the US space programme hasn't been able to achieve. 

On Oct 25, SpaceX’s Dragon rocket returned from the ISS and splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, carrying 3,276 lbs of cargo & science samples. SpaceX has also pipped Boeing, to clinch a US$2.6 billion dollar contract from NASA to ferry astronauts to the ISS.

Finer says Musk is a hero because “he has taken a basic thought about a rocket, and asked why people are doing certain things a certain way. He was instrumental in figuring and changing the ‘how’ to go to space.”

He adds that Musk biggest technological innovation was figuring out how to instruct the rocket engine to fly back to the pad, for reuse. “He proved everyone wrong. People said it can’t be done, he says ‘why not’. That’s really inspirational for me.”

Finer can be forgiven for being a dreamer of what is up beyond the stratosphere, in the black sky. "I would really love to be an astronaut, to go to Mars." He is not alone. Others such as Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, or Derek Handley, founder of HyperFactory which he has since divested, are also astronauts-in-waiting.

Check out a glimpse SpaceX's Dragon 2, which will in the future transport men to space