Foust Forward | Worldwide, there are 131 small launch vehicles in the works. Most of these will fizzle out.
“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Aug. 19, 2019 issue.
The numbers continue to boggle the minds of most people in the space industry. In a brief presentation at the Conference on Small Satellites Aug. 6, Carlos Niederstrasser of Northrop Grumman gave an update of a long-running effort to track small launch vehicle efforts. “And now the number everyone’s been waiting for: 128 small launch vehicles currently under development,” he announced.
But, he added that number was already out of date. “In the past four days I picked up three more launch vehicles,” he said. “So, the number is actually 131.”
There’s almost universal agreement in the industry that there are far many more small launchers under development than can be supported by even the most optimistic forecasts of smallsat development. That inevitable shakeout of the market will give an advantage to companies that are already launching, like Rocket Lab, or those that soon plan to enter service, like Virgin Orbit.
Then there are companies like Rocket Crafters. The company, based on Florida’s Space Coast, is developing a rocket called the Intrepid-1 that is like many of the small launch vehicles proposed or under development. It will be capable of placing up to 500 kilograms into low Earth orbit for $9 million.
The day after NASA tested the Orion launch escape system at Cape Canaveral last month, the company invited reporters to its headquarters in an industrial park in Cocoa, Florida, to discuss the rocket and to show off one of the vehicle’s distinguishing factors: a hybrid motor that uses nitrous oxide and plastic fuel. A test motor, capable of 550 pounds-force of thrust, was set up on a stand outside the building. In a control room, reporters and staff watched as engineers counted down the final seconds until ignition of the motor, which promptly fired up.
And, just as quickly, shut down. Engineers aborted the test after just 1.5 seconds, and the company later explained that a pressure seal in part of the igniter system of the motor failed.
Company executives shrugged off the aborted test and instead focused on their future plans. Sean Mirsky, a Rocket Crafters board member, said the company was seeing interest in its rocket from companies that want to launch satellites for communications systems and even “crypto” — as in cryptocurrency — applications. “Technologies like this are enabling younger, aggressive companies to take a first-mover advantage,” he said.
Rocket Crafters, though, won’t have a first-mover advantage in the launch market. The company says the Intrepid-1 won’t be ready before early 2021. So how will it stand out among the many other small launchers that may be ready before it?
“Safety, reliability and cost,” responded Rob Fabian, a former Air Force officer who is Rocket Crafter’s president. The vehicle’s cost, though, may not be that competitive with other vehicles, especially if competition drives down prices. Safety and reliability, however, will have be demonstrated over time, and a motor that sputtered in a test doesn’t help.
The 15-person company acknowledges it has a lot of work ahead of it, both in developing its hybrid motors and other vehicle technologies as well as raising money. So do the dozens of other companies with their own take on small launch vehicles, with varying designs and approaches but with a shared vision of tapping into the growing demand for smallsats.
Most of those companies will likely fizzle, like Rocket Crafters’ motor in its test last month. But even early, well-funded companies are not guaranteed to be successful, as Vector’s recent setback demonstrated. Later companies could learn from the successes, and failures, of earlier ones.
Or, the whole small launch industry could be disrupted by new developments.
Rocket Crafters, as it turns out, isn’t the only launch vehicle developer located on Cidco Road in Cocoa. At the end of the street is the facility once known as Coastal Steel. Today, that’s where SpaceX is building a prototype of its Starship reusable launch vehicle.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.