Launcher Stennis test stand
A rendering of Launcher's test stand (foreground) it will set up at the E-1 complex at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Credit: Launcher

WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle startup Launcher has signed an agreement with the Stennis Space Center to test engines at the Mississippi facility.

The New York-based company signed a Space Act Agreement with Stennis at the end of March to use the E-1 test stand at the center for tests of its engine, coincidentally named E-2, it is developing for a small launch vehicle.

Max Haot, chief executive of Launcher, said in an April 14 interview that the company originally planned to conduct tests of the 3D-printed combustion chamber for the E-2 engine at a test site on Long Island that the company has used for tests of smaller engines. Those tests are part of a $1.5 million U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract the company received last November at the Air Force Space Pitch Day event in San Francisco.

“We had always assumed that Stennis was out of our expense range for now,” he said. However, Stennis officials contacted the company after it received the Air Force SBIR and discussed how the center could affordably support those tests. “We basically found a mode of operation and a deal that made sense for us at our current size.”

Haot said that by testing at Stennis, they can avoid environmental issues, such as noise, had they continued using their existing site. Stennis also has extensive infrastructure that the company can use. One example he gave was access to high-pressure nitrogen needed for engine tests. “If we’re doing it ourselves we’re dealing with more than 50 bottles for each test. There it comes from the tap.”

Launcher is working on the specific test stand structures it needs for the site, with the goal of being ready to start combustion chamber tests there this summer. One complication is that Stennis is one of a dozen NASA facilities currently at Stage 4 of the agency’s pandemic response framework, effectively closing the center except for staff needed for safety and security. Haot said he hopes that, by the time the company is ready to set up the test stand, the center will be open again.

The agreement is a long-term one, he said, so that the company can also perform full-scale E-2 engine tests at the site. The goal is to complete testing of the engine there by the end of 2021.

Launcher itself has been able to continue operations during the pandemic given that it, like many other aerospace firms, is considered an essential business by the government. The company, though, is “keeping the team to a minimum” through social distancing, he said. “So far, things have continued to move along.”

Launcher is one of several companies that have carried out engine tests at Stennis in recent years. SpaceX previously used the E-2 test site for initial tests of its Raptor engine it is developing for its Starship/Super Heavy vehicles. Relativity, another small launch vehicle company, signed an agreement with Stennis in 2018 to use the E-4 complex for tests of the Aeon engine it is building for its Terran 1 rocket. Relativity has a separate agreement to convert a building at Stennis into a factory for those rockets.

Haot said the company remains on track to develop its Rocket-1 small launch vehicle by the mid-2020s. The company has raised $5.5 million to date, including the $1.5 million Air Force SBIR award, and is looking to raise more funding. “Our key differentiator is that we believe that the propulsion system is the most important,” he said, and can be developed with a relatively small team. “Once we have the propulsion system proven, only then will we want to scale up and build a vehicle. It takes longer, but it’s a lot less risk.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...