A hot sauce, two Gator engineering grads and the final frontier

I wrote this piece for The Sun. This is why living in GNV is so cool.

Logan Ritten and Austin Keatley with Keatley’s 1981 Lincoln Continental. In partnership with the University of Florida, the two Gator engineering grads are working on a U.S. Space Force contract to develop the prototype for a satellite that can seek out and get rid of space debris.

A funny thing happened to Logan Ritten during Covid lockdown: He grew so many red peppers that he didn’t know what to do with them all.

So he started fooling around with hot sauces…and then formed a company to market his line of Wacky Sauces.

“I had done some previous e-marketing and knew how to sell things on Instagram,” he said.

Which doesn’t at all explain why Ritten is these days hold up in an Alachua warehouse working on a U.S. Space Force-funded prototype of a mini-satellite that may one day make being in earth orbit safer from collision with space debris.

Keatley works with a 3D printer to fashion components for their prototype Athena vehicle.

Long story short: Ritten is a 2021 graduate of the University of Florida’s aerospace engineering program. And a Gator aerospace education is a terrible thing to waste, even if you are a budding hot sauce tycoon.

“Ever since I can remember, I’ve been looking up at stars,” he said.

Ritten and a former classmate, UF mechanical engineering grad Austin Keatley, have founded a company called Ares Orbital Corp. And going where few rocket scientists have gone before, they intend to break into the increasingly competitive space industry using relatively inexpensive manufacturing processes and off-the-shelf components.

Ritten calls it a “dumb hardware, smart software” approach. It means “building things with off-the-shelf parts using 3D printing when we can. By using non-space components for orbital applications and space-hardened standard electronics we can build these vehicles super fast and super cheap.”

So how did this all come to pass?

“I had this idea for micro-autonomous rocket systems,” he recalled. “I started sketching things out in the back room of the beef jerky store I was working at. Then I called Austin and said ‘I’m doing something crazy. Are you in?’”

Athena prototype concept.

When Keatley got the call he was working for an audio-visual tech firm in Atlanta. “My career was starting to feel boxed in,” he said. “I decided it was better for me to control my own destiny.”

So Keatley climbed into his vintage 1981 Lincoln Continental Mark 6 and motored on back to the Gainesville of his student days.

“It started off almost as a pipe dream,” Ritten said, “but slowly we started to define our business model.”

And as start-ups go, they are off to a promising start.

They were able obtain seed money by winning a $10,000 first prize in the Gainesville-based OneSixOne Accelerator/Pitch Competition. “It really helped us get started,” Ritten said.

And then they applied for the Space Force’s Space WERX Orbital Prime Contract program. “There were hundreds of applicants, and only 125 got awarded,” Ritten said.

Their project approval came with $250,000 and the prospect of more funding in later phases if their ideas pan out.

To qualify for the funding, they had to partner with the University of Florida. Ritten convinced his former UF aerospace engineering professor, Richard C. Lind Jr., to sign on as lead investigator.

“Their company is working on the hardware side, and UF on the software side,” said Lind. “When a piece of space debris is observed, then it’s UF’s job to take the images of the debris from different angles and use artificial intelligence to rapidly decide where’s the best place to grab it.”

Although that might not be a difficult proposition when large computers with lots of computational power are involved, “the whole goal is to have this working on a really small system in space.”

Coupling UF’s software with the modular satellite Ares Orbital is designing should “allow for a single payload to take down objects as large as a discarded rocket stage booster or large defunct satellites,” Ritten said.

Ritten displays a model of their company’s “cube sats.”

In addition to that project, Ritten and Keatley are also building a line of “cube sats” for a company called SpaceVR. Equipped with 360-degree cameras, the softball-sized cubes are designed to be positioned in earth orbit. The company plans to deploy the sat cubes to help give its customers a fully immersive space experience without actually being in space.

What’s unique about the Space WERX Orbital Prime Contract is that it is designed to help small businesses break into an industry that has historically been dominated by large aerospace corporations.

“Overall the goal is to prove that large satellites can be manufactured much more efficiently and affordably than currently being done,” Ritten said.

The early viability of their company is something of a tribute to the collaborative nature of Gainesville’s tech start-up community.

Before renting their current workshop in Alachua the two originally worked out of a warehouse owned and equipped by Augie Lye, CEO of the Gainesville-based Chromatic Games and a longtime supporter of local tech startups.

Himself one of the city’s most successful tech entrepreneurs, Lye learned about fellow UF grads Ritten and Keatley via a UF email that said, in effect, “Hey, you should talk to these kids. They’re interesting.”

“I grabbed coffee with them and it ended up taking four hours,” he said. “We started talking a about space propulsion and alien technology. And it just hit me that these kids are crazy enough to to pull it off.”

Lye added “Ten years ago you couldn’t do what they are talking about, using off-the-shelf components at greatly reduced costs.” When it came to putting things in space, “everything had to be custom made, and specifically designed.”

So why would a successful game designer help strangers who are looking to break into the space biz? “We are all on the same island here in Gainesville,” Lye said.

Operating out of Lye’s building, Ritten and Keatley are working with 3D and resin printers to fashion thruster nozzles and other components. The prototype they are developing will employ an experimental cold gas nitrogen propulsion system that will enable it to seek out space debris and either send it into lower earth orbit to burn up or direct it to what would amount to debris junk yards that might later be scavenged for materials and parts.

At work in their Alachua warehouse.

Although the project is specifically aimed at space debris removal, Ritten said the vehicle could ultimately serve any number of functions in space.

He said their prototype, dubbed Athena, “is probably about 2-3 years out until orbital operations,” depending on the continuation of Space Force support. But the fledgling company is attempting to raise as much as $1 million in local venture capital to help speed things up.

“With external funding we could shorten this timeline significantly,” Ritten said.

Of course, if things don’t work out on the space front, there’s always that hot sauce business to fall back on.

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