Launcher has been testing the E-2 engine it is building for its Launcher Light vehicle at NASA's Stennis Space Center. Credit: Launcher/John Kraus

HAWTHORNE, Calif. — Launcher won a $1.7 million contract from the U.S. Space Force that will assist the company’s development of a high-performance rocket engine for its small launch vehicle.

Launcher announced May 25 it received the SBIR Phase 2B tactical funding increase, or TACFI, award from the Space Force earlier this month to accelerate work on the company’s E-2 engine. That includes full-duration testing of the engine’s turbopump and long-duration testing of the combustion chamber.

The company has been testing the engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, including a test in April where the engine generated its full thrust of about 22,000 pounds-force. The engine features a combustion chamber 3D-printed using a copper alloy and runs on liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants.

Launcher won another SBIR award from the Air Force in 2019, valued at $1.5 million, for E-2 engine development. “That was a really big boost for us in validation and funding,” Max Haot, founder and chief executive of Launcher, said in an interview at the company’s headquarters here. “We’re excited that they were pleased with our performance and that they wanted to sponsor us for another one.”

“What we’re doing now is taking it to the next level, which is a long-duration test and the turbopump,” he said of the new award. “We’re also excited that they see the value of the staged combustion engine and its high performance.”

Launcher has emphasized the high performance of the E-2 compared to other engines that use kerosene and liquid oxygen. The company says the E-2 has a specific impulse at sea level of 288 seconds, and 326 seconds in vacuum. That outperforms other American engines, including SpaceX’s Merlin, and is behind only the Russian RD-180.

The E-2 will power Launcher Light, the small launch vehicle the company is developing for a first flight in 2024. A single engine will power the first stage of the vehicle, an approach Haot said offers simplicity compared to alternative designs that use clusters of smaller engines, while also enabling the company to later scale up to a larger launch vehicle with the same engine.

Launcher is working on Launcher Light and the E-2 engine in parallel with Orbiter, an orbital transfer vehicle that will first fly later this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission. Orbiter will later be used on Launcher Light missions as well.

Both Launcher Light and Orbiter, Haot said, are designed to serve a demand for space access that is not being met despite the dozens of other companies working on similar vehicles.

“The conflict in Ukraine has made it clear that launch vehicles and access to space is strategic,” he said. Even with dozens of launch vehicle startups, few have made it into service. “To me, the world is asking where are the rockets, not that there are too many.”

That will continue, he said, even amid concerns about a recession. “In terms of the government outlook, as a customer, I certainly don’t see any slowdown,” he said. “For commercial, maybe there will be fewer startups for a few years. But the launch capacity is not there for what is being built today and for the next 5 to 10 years.”

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...