Brian Stofiel Stumbled Onto the Right Stuff For Orbit: a Plastic Rocket 

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An undated photo on display at the Grissom Center shows local McDonnell engineers and Freedom 7, the first Mercury capsule. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • An undated photo on display at the Grissom Center shows local McDonnell engineers and Freedom 7, the first Mercury capsule.

On a recent Saturday morning, Stofiel leans back on his living-room couch. On the wall above him are two bronze-plated flintlock pistols and a framed photo of a southwestern desert scene. Stofiel is getting over a cold. He's wearing a worn company T-shirt and a pair of dusty jeans.

Stofiel, admittedly, would not fit into the clean-cut world of 1950s aerospace engineering. Shortly after his birth in Joliet, Illinois, his family moved to St. Louis, where his father and grandfather introduced him to the joys of model rocketry in Carondelet Park. As an adult, Stofiel returned to his hometown after multiple career changes, including a stint in an Air Force electronic-warfare unit and a job repairing medical equipment.

Like his father before him, he bonded with his daughter over launching things into the sky. Instead of hobby rockets, though, he set the five-year-old's sights on a 50-pound satellite.

"And then I ran into a problem," Stofiel continues. "It was going to cost us $2 million to get that satellite into space, so I went to my daughter. She's like, 'I guess we gotta build a rocket.'"

It's a story that Stofiel has clearly practiced, an adorable (and true) anecdote honed over years pitching his company to investors and conference audiences. At times, Stofiel naturally lapses into the jargon of the startup world, enthusing about the potential for "disrupting" the space industry, or noting that he's "bootstrapping" the company — when what he simply means is that he's gotten other jobs while funneling every cent to the startup. Between his own resources and his family's, he claims he's invested $750,000 into putting the Boreas into space.

On March 27, 2015, he launched his first test rocket, Bella R1, named for his daughter.

"I started designing the rocket from everything I knew from the other industries I worked in," Stofiel says. The Boreas' design elements, for instance, were inspired by his work in medical imaging. He built the guidance computer with elements he'd learned in the Air Force.

But the heart of Stofiel's promised disruption is the process that turns a 3D printer's plastic into a hard, heat-absorbing ceramic — a transubstantiation that raises the material's melting point from 200 degrees to more than 2,000. Stofiel says the process — for which he has applied for a patent — was inspired by his observation of cooling systems in nuclear power plants.

"The heat gets retained," he explains of the chemically treated plastic in his rockets. "With my ceramic nozzle, you can walk up as it's firing and hold it in your hand if you really wanted to. The outside is 70 degrees."

For observers like Jones, of Boeing, Stofiel's invention seems nothing short of revolutionary. Initially, Jones says, "I thought he was a bit wacky." The idea of building a rocket out of plastic seemed "totally outlandish, ridiculous." But seeing the plastic Stofiel developed, along with the system that worked with it, changed his mind. "Brian's a visionary," he concludes.

Despite promising results, though, Stofiel has struggled to package his breakthrough in the data preferred by professionals. While he was living in Cleveland, Stofiel claims to have approached scientists at that city's NASA Glenn Research Center. He was looking for a software simulation to describe the various forces inside his rocket. In response, Stofiel says the scientists told him to take a hike — no software, they said, could simulate what was happening inside a heretofore unknown rocket design in the moments after ignition.

"We didn't have a starting point; it was too complex," Stofiel says of his research. "Unlike what's been happening the last 20 or 30 years in aerospace, we couldn't simulate the problem in the computer."

The solution, says Stofiel, was "firing rockets as cheaply as possible to collect the data." There was so much basic information to ascertain: What was the rocket's thrust? How did the gas behave while moving through the nozzle? What was the pressure of the combustion chamber?

On that last point, says Stofiel, "It took us 37 test fires to finally figure out how to sensor that."

A rendering shows one variation of the "Boreas" system: A balloon drags a rocket one-third of the way to space, and from there the rocket's all-plastic thrust system carries it into orbit. The rocket then releases "Hyperion" space planes, which disgorge payloads of miniature satellites. - COURTESY OF STOFIEL AEROSPACE
  • A rendering shows one variation of the "Boreas" system: A balloon drags a rocket one-third of the way to space, and from there the rocket's all-plastic thrust system carries it into orbit. The rocket then releases "Hyperion" space planes, which disgorge payloads of miniature satellites.

The test fires steadily filled in the data. In 2015, Stofiel launched two rockoons into the atmosphere, a risky venture that he carefully describes as "legal under the spirit of law." Although both the rockoons' rockets fired, neither was designed with sufficient power to break through the atmosphere. But to Stofiel, the results were still hopeful.

But by the time Stofiel moved back to St. Louis in 2016, his primary obstacles weren't technological. The next benchmark would require his company to launch rockets to 62 miles above sea level, the division between Earth and space known as the Karman Line.

Stofiel believes Boreas is ready. The only thing stopping the launch is money.

Before launching at the Karman Line, Hermes will need to be fitted with a specific transmitter that allows federal agencies to follow its flight — "The government wants to be able to track your rocket quickly," Stofiel notes — and it comes with a cost of some $30,000. Each full-sized Hermes rocket adds another $10,000 to the bill, and Stofiel wants to prove his doubters wrong with an ambitious demonstration: firing three rockets in three days.

He had hoped to arrange the shots at the Karman Line earlier this year, finally proving that his plastic rocket engine is more than a basement fantasy. But he has yet to do one. He says that the company is now aiming for a launch this summer.

"Most people think funding just occurs," Stofiel says, noting that around 100 other companies in the U.S. are developing rival technology to launch payloads cheaply into low-earth orbit. The competition forces companies to play the long game.

"It's common to not get investment for ten years in the space industry," Stofiel says. Even so, his impatience is audible. After all, he believes that he's already got a launch vehicle ready to go to space.

"I can build out a rocket in 83 hours," he adds. "You give me the money, and I'll build it."

Rising from the sofa, the CEO of Stofiel Aerospace pulls on a pair of boots and clomps down the stairs to his basement. To the right is the family room with a table and the sewing machine where he stitches his company's logos on jacket patches. To the left lies the workshop, where a rocket-assembly line occupies two shelving units and three 3D printers.

Stofiel grabs two ends of a rocket, fitting the cylinders together to form a small-scale version of the Hermes. Its two meters of length barely clear the low basement ceiling.

With rocket-launch plans in stasis, Stofiel is turning to plan B — marketing and selling his heat-absorbing invention in the form of motorcycle exhaust systems. He's building a large kiln in his backyard to accommodate the new orders. He hopes the sales will supply funding for his space project.

Maybe it's not how SpaceX or Boeing would fund their research, but there is no guidebook to starting a space business, just as there was no guidebook for McDonnell Aircraft when it set to work building the Mercury. If Stofiel had that company's resources, he could throw a lab full of engineers at every question mark and buy rocket test after rocket test to document the wobble of every data point.

But it's been 58 years since Mercury's first mission, and Stofiel expects the space industry 2019 to be more open, a marketplace of possibility instead of a closed laboratory for the rich. He's got a rocket and a plan, and that's enough for him. It's also enough for some of his fans on Mac's Old Team.

"That's what the Mac guys really did tell me," Stofiel says. "They said, 'Stop trying to understand it. You've got something that works. Go use it.'"

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