Small rocket builders with dreams of Mars run away from their own igniting vehicle

"We knew better as untrained college students."
Chris Young
Pythom Space engineers running (left) and the company's Eiger rocket (right).Pythom Space/Youtube

Rule number one of rocket safety: Keep your distance.

A video showing Pythom Space engineers running away from their own stage one booster test has fueled an intense debate about safety procedures for rocket startups. 

After industry leaders derided Pythom Space's apparent disregard for industry-wide safety procedures, the company's founders released a statement, defiantly suggesting the backlash highlights an elitist strain within the U.S. rocket industry.

"A masterclass in how not to do rocket science"

It started with Ars Technica's senior space editor, Eric Berger, posting the video on Monday, April 11, as part of a Twitter thread. Alongside the video, Berger wrote: "Damn, Pythom Space has some work to do on their safety culture — this video is a masterclass in how not to do rocket science."

For context, Pythom Space is a small private California-based rocket company co-founded by Tina and Tom Sjögren. On its website, the company states it wants to send missions to other celestial bodies, including Mars and the Moon, while reducing costs by operating a small team.

In a report detailing safety concerns regarding Pythom Space, Ars Technica's Berger states that "one area in which Pythom appears to be saving personnel costs is its safety and mission assurance department."

The video he shared on social media (embedded above) was originally posted online by the Pythom Space team. It shows the company firing up a hold-down test of its first stage Eiger rocket booster with a single engine. Around halfway through the roughly three-minute clip, the engine fires up and three Pythom Space members can be seen running from the resulting cloud of dust and gas.

Several commenters highlighted the staff members' dangerous proximity not only to a live rocket engine test, but also to the toxic gas cloud emanating from that test. As Jeff Greason wrote in Berger's Twitter thread, "When you decompose HNO3 with other things, you get nitric oxides in the cloud. This is Not Fun." Jordan Noone, co-founder of Relativity Space, also replied with scathing criticism, saying "we knew better as untrained college students".

Another online commenter drew attention to an image of one of Pythom Space's engineers working under the suspended Eiger rocket without a hardhat. All of this looks even worse given the fact that a blog post by Pythom's founders claims they didn't know if the rocket "would blow to pieces on the pad" during the hold-down test.

Pythom Space claims concerns over its safety procedures are exaggerated

Pythom Space was quick to respond following the backlash. The company replied on the same day as Berger's Twitter thread and article in a blog post attributed to the company's two founders, Tina and Tom Sjögren.

Besides highlighting their dismay that Berger only waited 12 hours after asking for comment before going live with his article, they also suggest the outcry over their safety procedures is down to an elitist strain within the rocket industry and a lack of transparency on the part of other rocket firms. 

"After the micro-jump of Eiger stage one last month, suddenly Pythom seems to be on everyone's radar in the US," Pythom wrote in its blog post. "In [the] true Pythom spirit of showing things like they are, we had posted a video of the jump, including the "scary" parts, normally swept under the rug in the aerospace industry."

The Pythom team claims concerns over the toxic cloud are exaggerated as the company uses a "'green' propellant combination of furfuryl alcohol and WFNA (nitric acid)," which it chose because it is "much kinder to people and the environment." Still, they do admit that, "like any toxic smoke, the by-products of Pythom propellants should be avoided," which is why its staff members — the company's founders — ran away from the cloud.

Pythom Space: "Should we only allow billionaires to lead our way into space?"

Pythom Space's post also explains that the team "builds [rockets] faster and cheaper than any startup in Europe and the US (that we know of). Only some of the Chinese startups are on the same level." The company suggests the backlash comes mainly from the fact that it is more transparent than other rocket companies like Astra, which has "been blowing up more rockets than we can count."

Of course, this is highly debatable and arguably amounts to pure conjecture on the part of Pythom Space, which doesn't point to any specific breaches of safety procedures by other space firms. Pythom's founders also point out fatalities that occurred during Virgin Galactic's earliest crewed tests, which seems like an unwise move in a post that's aimed at defending their safety practices.

"Virgin had several accidents, including fatalities. ABL blew up their second stage last month," the founders explain. "What puts them and Pythom apart is neither that we are safer or more unsafe. The difference is we are more transparent."

Pythom's founders finish their post in defiant form by stating that "our message to the aerospace community is simply this. Should we only allow billionaires and formal aerospace engineers to lead our way into space? Or should we encourage all space enthusiasts cheering on the sidelines that they too can actually start building themselves, step by step, even if they are not part of traditional space?"

Pythom Space's founders certainly show their determination, but their comments seem misguided. Safety procedures aren't a luxury only affordable for the world's richest companies. They're enforced to ensure everyone's safety, regardless of background. We've reached out to Pythom Space for comment and will update the article if we hear back.

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