But he needed help. In late 2014 he called up his old roommate from boarding school, Ryan Hampton, a whiz at construction and industrial operations. Hampton was running underwater welding operations on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico when Yaney made his pitch. As Hampton recalls, “He said, ‘I’ve got 4 million bucks and a crazy idea, want to come with me?’”
Hampton couldn’t resist. In January 2015 he flew out to see what Yaney had built. It wasn’t much. Yaney showed off his tabletop centrifuge and shared his spreadsheets full of calculations. But Hampton was hooked: He saw that SpinLaunch was “gonna be one hell of a project,” and signed on as employee number one.
Yaney had the ideas and Hampton the construction skills, but they still needed some aerospace engineers. So on a warm spring day a few months later, the pair climbed into Yaney’s Cessna and flew out to the edge of the Mojave desert, where dozens of college students had gathered to test their rockets. The duo was hoping to recruit a few of them.
One of their targets was David Wrenn, a junior at San Diego State University. He had been doing phone interviews with SpinLaunch for weeks, and the circumstances weren’t ideal for an in-person interview. “I had been awake for like 36 hours at that point, so I was semi-insane when I met Jonathan,” Wrenn recalls. Still, the meeting went well. He took a leave of absence from college and flew out to San Francisco to join SpinLaunch, where he now works as a senior mechanical engineer.
Hampton says the early days of SpinLaunch reminded him a lot of life on an oil rig. Employees lived and worked at an old microprocessor plant SpinLaunch had taken over just down the road from the Googleplex. When Wrenn arrived, the living spaces were spare. “At that point the kitchen was like a microwave and a plastic table,” he says. “You had to have a lot of vision or nothing to lose, one or the other.” When they weren’t working, the SpinLaunch crew lifted weights together in a makeshift gym, watched movies in a “home theater,” or relaxed around a fire pit—the converted remnants of Yaney’s original tabletop centrifuge.
The team quickly ran into engineering challenges. The centrifuge they were building had to sit in a massive vacuum chamber to protect the system from air turbulence and stabilize it as it spins. When they approached contractors to build the chamber, they got one bid—with a price of $20 million.
So the SpinLaunch team decided to build it themselves. As an underwater welder Hampton had become an expert at crafting airtight seals, which translated well to his new task. Yaney ordered a few vacuum pumps off of eBay and $500,000 worth of steel, and the team set out to build the sixth largest vacuum chamber, by diameter, in the world. It took them eight months. “I think we all began to realize that there’s so many things in science and engineering that have to be uncovered, simply because people don’t try them,” Yaney says.
In 2016, they completed their first centrifuge. At 40 feet in diameter, it’s still too small to hoist a rocket into space, but the fundamental design is the same. A long arm, called a tether, stretches out from an oil-slicked bearing powered by a motor. The payload attaches to the end of the tether. To withstand the enormous strain it will experience, the tether will have to be made of ultra-strong materials like Kevlar and carbon fiber.
After nearly two years of working 12 hours a day, six days a week, the SpinLaunch team was finally ready to fire up its first real centrifuge. “We were all huddled into a room about 50 feet away behind a bunch of monitors and cameras,” Yaney says. They checked that the system was in good shape, and then went for it. “We just hit the throttle and broke the world record for the fastest rotational system.”