Rocket Factory Augsburg plans to launch the maiden flight of its RFA One small launch vehicle from the Andøya Spaceport in the Vesterålen archipelago, Norway. Image credit: Rocket Factory Augsburg/Andøya Space

BREMEN, Germany — German launch startup Rocket Factory Augsburg has signed a new customer for the first launch of its RFA One rocket next year.

The firm announced Nov. 18 a launch contract inked at the Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen with Ukraine-based Lunar Research Service (LRS) for launch of a research mission. 

The spacecraft will launch on the first flight of the reusable RFA One launcher, currently set to take place at the end of 2022 from Andøya spaceport, Norway.

During the expo RFA also signed a memorandum of understanding for cooperation with Morpheus Space with a view to integrating Morpheus propulsion systems in the RFA One, as well as another MoU with London-based space tech startup Lúnasa relating to the latter’s reusable orbital transfer vehicle named VIA.

Rocket Factory Augsburg is a spinoff from German space technology company OHB founded in 2018. The three-stage RFA One launcher uses a cluster of 9 staged combustion engines on the first stage and is designed to carry up to 1,300 kilograms into a 300-kilometer polar orbit.

The LRS contract follows launch deals including those with LuxSpace and Plus Ultra Space Outpost. 

OHB has also notably committed to five launches per year on the RFA One, providing a core customer and a measure of stable missions which other European challengers do not have, RFA COO Stefan Brieschenk told SpaceNews.

Asked how RFA had managed to build its flight manifest ahead of a first launch, Brieschenk said “we managed to attract customers because we are disrupting the market with price leadership. 

“If we can offer a launch service on a small rocket that has equal relative costs than the large rockets, then the disruption is here because the large rocket will basically lose all payloads.”

Brieschenk says that today many companies using rideshares are in the testing and development stage and are not so concerned with the orbit. But, in the future, “the picture may look very different.” With proven technologies and business cases, specific orbits perhaps cannot be ignored by operators.

With a qualified staged combustion engine, providing a performance edge over competitors using gas generators, the next steps for RFA are building the flight engines and conducting long duration hot fire tests. Building the first stage will follow, leading into the flight campaign. The end of 2022 is stated as an optimistic yet achievable target. 

Brieschenk says time is a very important factor, “but so is the total amount of investment to complete a first successful launch and resolve a launch vehicle that is really competitive.

“There is so much competition that right now it’s a red ocean, with arguably too many players. It’s going to be very difficult to stand out to capture enough customers to be successful.”

One of the main challenges technologically has been to develop an inexpensive launcher with a large payload capacity. These two typically do not go together and as such is a “massive struggle.” Another critical issue, as for other European startups and spaceports, is having a regulatory framework in place to allow the first launch from Andøya to go ahead. 

While some startups have stated grand ambitions and visions for space, RFA is laser-focused on the customer

“We want to bring the disruption that the customer needs…. They want a smaller, flexible rocket at the same cost as the large rocket,” says Brieschenk. 

More broadly however he says there should be more ambition in Europe. Speaking on a panel on future-proofing European launch at Space Tech Expo Europe, Brieschenk noted what he sees as a lack of ambition for space in Europe.

“Why, as European citizens, do we feel strange if someone says that Europe should put the first human on the Red Planet? It feels strange when we say that, but it is a mistake. Of all great endeavours in history, there is ambition. Whether we achieve that is a different question, but we should have the ambition.”

Brieschenk qualifies however that crafting a European space identity and its levels of ambition should be “the mission of the European Space Agency and the mission of us as European citizens.” 

RFA meanwhile has singled out its focus and ambition, and the next few years will tell what part it and others will have to play in the emerging European commercial launch sector.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...