Making Launch Affordable

Spotlight | Microcosm Inc. 

SAN FRANCISCO — Microcosm President James Wertz, a professor and author of space reference tomes, points to history to explain the importance of the firm’s composite cryogenic fuel tanks. When Wernher von Braun began working on V-2 rockets in 1930s, metal fuel tanks were too heavy to fly. The German engineers solved the problem by building “remarkably thin-walled tanks and a turbopump with 10,000 high-speed moving parts,” Wertz said. “The merit of composites is that you can now make a very lightweight, very strong tank and use a pressure-fed system in order to get to orbit at much lower cost with a much smaller parts count.”

Wertz, who has been teaching a graduate course, “The Design of Low-Cost Space Missions,” at the University of Southern California since 1998, speaks frequently about the need to slash costs. “That is the single most critical problem facing the American space industry,” Wertz said. “Space missions cost too much, take too long and aren’t responsive to world events. In addition, our space assets are vulnerable to a growing list of adversaries.”

The Sprite launch vehicle is intended to put about 450 kilograms into low Earth orbit for less than $6 million. Credit: Microcosm artist's concept
The Sprite launch vehicle is intended to put about 450 kilograms into low Earth orbit for less than $6 million. Credit: Microcosm artist’s concept
The Sprite launch vehicle is intended to put about 450 kilograms into low Earth orbit for less than $6 million. Credit: Microcosm artist’s concept

Microcosm and a company it spun off in 1999, Scorpius Space Launch Co., offer a broad array of products and services designed to remedy those problems, ranging from mission engineering services to launch systems, small spacecraft and software. Microcosm does not announce its contract awards or financial results because it is privately owned and much of its work is performed under nondisclosure agreements with its customers.

Since the company was established in 1984, Microcosm has won 94 Small Business Innovative Research awards worth more than $65 million, Wertz said. Under one of those contracts, Microcosm is building an all-composite, single-stage tank and structure for the Mars Ascent Vehicle, which is designed to bring samples from the Martian surface to low Mars orbit for subsequent return to Earth. “The mass of the ascent vehicle is critically important and we’re very pleased to be able to build full-size, flight weight hardware in support of NASA,” Wertz said.

Microcosm President James Wertz. Credit: Microcosm
James Wertz

Microcosm Inc. at a Glance

Established: 1984

Location: Hawthorne, California

Top Official: James Wertz, president

Employees: About 30

Mission: To reduce cost and enable responsive, affordable and innovative space missions

Pressurmaxx, Scorpius’ all-composite cryogenic pressure vessel — built with carbon fiber and a proprietary cryogenic resin formulation to withstand temperatures as low as minus-196 degrees Celsius and pressures of several thousand pounds per square inch — is one of the company’s best-known products.

“Other companies work in this area but their tanks operate at lower pressure,” said Richard Van Allen, Microcosm vice president and Space Systems Division director. Van Allen’s predecessor in that job was Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. Credit: SpaceX
Microcosm alum Gwynne Shotwell now runs SpaceX, also headquartered in Hawthorne, California. Credit: SpaceX

Scorpius markets and sells the composite tanks, which range from 25 centimeters to 1.3 meters in diameter and are 1.3 to 4 meters long. With new machinery, Scorpius could produce even larger composite tanks, said Markus Rufer, Scorpius president and chief executive.

Although many customers have expressed interest in the composite tanks, some have been hesitant to adopt the new technology. “We are in a very risk-averse environment,” Rufer said. “People still do their own testing and qualification in many cases before they use our products.”

“It’s a fairly conservative industry,” Wertz added. “As I point out in my class all the time, if we built phones the way we built spacecraft, your phone would still have a cord attached.”

Customers have been similarly slow to adopt another Microcosm innovation, autonomous orbit control software. The University of Surrey first flew the software on UoSat-12 in 1999, and in 2006 the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory used it on Tactical Satellite-2.

Autonomous control software would be particularly useful for satellite constellations because it “eliminates virtually all ground control of the spacecraft, which saves a lot of money,” Van Allen said. “It also reduces risk because you don’t have to constantly communicate between the ground and the spacecraft.”

Scorpius designs, develops and builds pressure vessels, components, systems and launch vehicles for commercial customers, while Microcosm focuses on serving government customers. Both companies also offer systems engineering, space mission analysis and launch services. The two companies share a building and continue to cooperate on a variety of products, Wertz said.


One of those joint products is a family of launch vehicles including Demi-Sprite, a vehicle being designed to put 160 kilograms into low Earth orbit, and SR-M, a suborbital rocket to send 300-kilogram payloads into microgravity for 250 seconds. Demi-Sprite is built using an SR-M core to act as its second stage. The core is surrounded by six identical cores acting as the rocket’s first stage.

Demi-Sprite customers would pay less than $4 million per launch for the rocket, which is designed to fly from a flat pad in eight hours or less and travel through more than 99.9 percent of winds aloft. “That is a key issue if you are trying to be responsive and resilient,” Wertz said.

For the small-satellite market, Microcosm is developing NanoEye, a 1.4-meter-tall, hydrazine-fueled spacecraft designed to cost less than $2.5 million, launch within hours of demand and provide resolution of one-half meter or better using electro-optical and infrared sensors. The U.S. Army provided initial funding for NanoEye’s early development with Small Business Innovative Research contracts.

Microcosm’s Lynn Shimohara with a full-scale model of the all-composite, hydrazine-fueled NanoEye small spacecraft. Credit: Microcosm
Microcosm’s Lynn Shimohara with a full-scale model of the all-composite, hydrazine-fueled NanoEye small spacecraft. Credit: Microcosm

“NanoEye is fairly unique in terms of its cost and capability,” Wertz said. “Because of its exceptional agility, it can take and deliver more than 1,000 separate images on a pass over a given region.”

Wertz founded the company with his wife, Alice Wertz, Microcosm chief financial officer, to market attitude control components for Ithaco Inc., a major supplier of spacecraft sensors later acquired by Goodrich Corp. In 1992, Microcosm spun off its first business, Microcosm Astronautics Books, which sells technical works including Wertz’s “Spacecraft Attitude Determination and Control,” originally published in 1978.

Microcosm supplements its staff of about 30 employees by hiring consultants, subcontracting work to large aerospace companies and drawing on NASA expertise. Using Space Act Agreements, Microcosm has brought in help from the NASA Ames Research Center and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Company officials declined to specify the type of work performed by NASA personnel.

“This type of arrangement keeps us lean and allows us to be more versatile,” Wertz said. Microcosm executives are eager to share their ideas for making space missions similarly lean, but often have trouble persuading customers to embrace new ways of doing business.

“Clearly we can build missions for one or two orders of magnitude less than they currently cost, but the government needs some motivation to make that happen,” Wertz said. “So far, at least, that motivation isn’t there.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...