Launcher takes long-term view of small launch market

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WASHINGTON — A startup that recently hired an experienced Ukrainian engineer is taking a long-term view for development of a small launch vehicle, believing that performance will win out over time.

New York-based Launcher announced Dec. 4 that it hired Igor Nikishchenko as its new chief designer. Nikishchenko has more than 30 years of experience in liquid-fuel engine development, working as deputy chief designer in the liquid propulsion department of Ukrainian aerospace company Yuzhnoye and, more recently, for Italian launch vehicle company Avio.

Max Haot, founder and chief executive of Launcher, said Nikishchenko will have a role similar to chief engineer or chief technology officer. “He’ll be responsible for all of our design and engineering,” he said in an interview.

Haot said he became familiar with Ukrainian expertise in launch vehicles in his previous venture, the internet video company Livestream, which had an office in the country. He at one time considered setting up a presence in Ukraine to work on launch vehicles, but concluded there were “too many regulations” in both Ukraine and the United States to make that feasible.

Launcher is particularly interested in Ukrainian work on oxygen-rich staged combustion, a type of engine that offers higher performance than alternative approaches using the same propellant combination of kerosene and liquid oxygen. Engines using that combustion were developed in the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, including the RD-180 engine that now powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5.

The company wants to apply that technology to a smaller engine for use on a small launch vehicle. “We’re not doing science here, not trying to make a breakthrough,” Haot said. “We’re trying to use a proven high-performance engine design, applied to a smaller size.” That includes incorporating some advanced technologies, like 3-D printing, to aid in manufacturing.

The company has been testing one such engine, called the E-1. That engine is intended to test the design at some of the same conditions, such as chamber pressure and mixture ratio, that will be used in the company’s larger E-2 engine it plans to use on its future launch vehicle. The E-2, capable of producing 22,000 pounds-force of thrust, is on track to be completed and tested by the end of 2020.

E-1 engine test
A test firing of Launcher’s E-1 engine, testing oxygen-rich staged combustion technology it plans to incorporate into its E-2 engine. Credit: Launcher/John Kraus

Once that engine is completed, Launcher plans to move ahead with development of a small launch vehicle. The company, though, is taking a much slower approach than many other vehicle developers: Haot said that, under current schedules, their vehicle will make a first test flight in 2025 and enter commercial service in 2026. The vehicle has a “conservative” target of placing 300 kilograms into a 200 kilometer orbit.

By contrast, dozens of other companies around the world have either already flown similar vehicles or plan to do so in the next few years. Rocket Lab, for example, made the first commercial launch of its Electron rocket Nov. 10 and plans a second flight, as part of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program, in December. Companies like Firefly Aerospace, Vector and Virgin Orbit are planning first launches of their vehicles by the end of 2019.

Haot said he believes that focusing on performance, rather than rushing into the market with another small launch vehicle, is a better strategy. “We have a very long-term view, 10 to 20 years,” he said. “We don’t believe that the people that got there a few years before will be the winners. We believe that the ones operating with the highest margin will be the winner.”

He argued that companies developing small launch vehicles now will likely be using them for the next decade with few changes. “The choice that they’ve made is a major compromise on performance, which results in a compromise on payload,” he said, making Launcher’s vehicle more competitive once it enters the market. “Our bet is that margin is more important than first to market.”

Launcher currently is a small company with five full-time employees, Haot said. The company has raised “millions, not tens of millions” of dollars to date, and will ramp up its fundraising once the E-2 engine is completed.

Unlike a number of other launch vehicle startups, with operations in hotbeds of aerospace activity like Southern California, Launcher is based in Brooklyn. Haot said that location has been a benefit to the company in a number of ways, such as in fundraising and recruiting. The company does engine testing at a site on Long Island previously used by Grumman for building F-14 fighter jets.

“It was a question mark when we started last year,” Haot said of the company’s location. The company has found that many subcontractors who formerly supported Grumman are still in the area, and it’s won local and political support looking to rebuild the region’s aerospace industry. “So far, it’s only been advantages.”