ABL tests the powerpack of the second stage of its RS1 launch vehicle at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Credit: ABL Space Systems

WASHINGTON — ABL Space Systems, a three-year-old startup developing a launch vehicle for small satellites, announced Aug. 3 that it has received two U.S. Air Force contracts worth $44.5 million and secured $49 million in new private funding.

Based in El Segundo, California, ABL is planning the first orbital launch of its RS1 vehicle in 2021.

Dan Piemont, ABL founder and chief financial officer, said the $44.5 million Air Force contracts include a one-year deal from the tech incubator AFWERX to demonstrate launch technology and an agreement with the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Space Enterprise Consortium to conduct three demonstrations of an RS1 vehicle variant and deployable ground infrastructure in 2022.

Additionally, the company has secured $49 million of financing from Ethan Batraski at Venrock with participation from New Science Ventures, Lynett Capital and Lockheed Martin Ventures.

“We did close the round during the COVID-19 pandemic. No doubt there have been serious challenges in many people’s lives this year, but I think the rhetoric around small launch funding being completely frozen and necessitating industry-level bailouts is a bit exaggerated,” Piemont told SpaceNews.

He said the funds will help accelerate the development of the two-stage launch vehicle and mobile launch equipment. A selling point of the ABL system is that it could launch from multiple sites without having to put up a lot of fixed infrastructure, a type of service the military calls “responsive launch.”

The company plans to offer commercial launch services from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mobile infrastructure designed to be transported by truck would allow ABL to share launch pads SLC-8 at Vandenberg and LC-46 at Cape Canaveral without having to build major infrastructure.

Piemont said the RS1’s maiden launch is planned in the first quarter of next year and a site selection will be announced soon.

ABL has been testing an integrated RS1 upper stage with an engine it developed called E2 for both the first and second stages of RS1. The Air Force Research Laboratory signed an agreement with ABL that allows the company to test hardware at Edwards Air Force Base in California. ABL said it has leased propulsion test facilities at Mojave Air and Space Port and has expanded its El Segundo facility to support full-scale production of the RS1 vehicle.

The RS1 is being developed carry up to 1,350 kilograms to low Earth orbit. The company advertises a price of $12 million per mission.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...