The small launch industry’s inflection point

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From launch failures and financial setbacks to a pandemic and pitiless competition, an industry long buoyed by optimism is learning how unforgiving spaceflight can be

The first sign of a problem during last month’s Electron launch was when the numbers that should have been going up started going down.

Like many other launch companies, Rocket Lab displays basic telemetry during webcasts of its missions, showing the vehicle’s altitude and speed. As the Electron took off from the company’s launch site in New Zealand on the morning of July 5 on a flight dubbed “Pics or It Didn’t Happen” — six of the seven payloads on the rocket were imaging satellites for Canon Electronics and Planet — those numbers increased as the rocket lifted off and headed for orbit.

However, about 5 minutes, 45 seconds after liftoff, the rocket’s velocity topped out at nearly 13,700 kilometers per hour, well short of orbital velocity, and started to decrease. A short time later, the velocity started increasing again, but only as the rocket’s altitude started falling from 195 kilometers. By the time the company took the telemetry off the screen a couple minutes later, the rocket had fallen 30 kilometers.

A short time later, the company confirmed the obvious: the launch had failed. “After 12 consecutive launches to space, today’s issue was a reminder that spaceflight can be very unforgiving,” The small launch industry’s inflection point Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a statement later that day.

An entire industry is learning how unforgiving spaceflight can be. For the last few years, the small launch vehicle industry has been based on potential: of low-cost rockets that launch frequently to serve a burgeoning market, a dream fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. But PowerPoint rockets never fail. Real ones can and, for new companies, often do.

“THRILLED, AND A BIT DISAPPOINTED”

Virgin Orbit knew the odds, historically, were against them as they prepared for their first flight of LauncherOne, its air-launched rocket. “History has not been kind to maiden flights,” Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, said at a briefing before the May 25 launch. “About half of maiden flights fail.”

LauncherOne, unfortunately, joined that club. “We succeeded in getting through our countdown and our launch seamlessly — really flawlessly — and dropped the rocket,” said Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, during a webinar two months later. The rocket handled as expected as it fell away from its Boeing 747 and, a few seconds later, ignited the NewtonThree engine in its first stage.

“We were pretty stoked at that point,” he said. “We had, at that moment, proven all of the new aspects of air launch.”

But, seconds later, the engine shut down. Hart said an investigation led the company to con – clude that a high-pressure feed line, supplying liquid oxygen, or LOX, to the engine broke. “LOX stopped going into the engine and our flight was terminated.”

The company is taking steps to strengthen those engine components. The second LauncherOne rocket is nearing completion at the company’s Long Beach, California, factory, although upgrades to the NewtonThree engine will continue. “We’ll be targeting our next flight before the end of the year,” he said.

The failure left Hart, and the company’s several hundred employees, with mixed feelings. “We left both incredibly excited and incredibly thrilled, and a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to orbit,” he said.

ASTRA SHOOTS FOR PAR

In March, Astra came within a minute of taking a shot at $2 million. The company’s Rocket 3.0 vehicle was on the pad at Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska on the last day of the DARPA Launch Challenge. Had it launched and reached orbit, the company would have won a $2 million prize and qualified to make a second launch for $10 million more.

Instead, the company scrubbed the launch. Adam London, the company’s co-founder and chief technical officer, said an “anomalous signal” in guidance, navigation and control equipment forced them to scrub. The problem, he said in a call with reporters July 30, was an issue with a fuel tank that the company corrected with both hardware and software adjustments.

While the DARPA competition was over, Astra tried again to launch the rocket later in March. However, the company said March 23 the rocket had been damaged during prelaunch testing and that the launch would be postponed. The company didn’t comment further, although there was industry speculation that the rocket had, in fact, been destroyed.

The mission patch for Virgin Orbit’s first launch demo, which failed its May 25 attempt to reach orbit, is seen on the Launcher One fairing. Credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson

London, confirming those rumors, said the problem took place after a “wet dress rehearsal,” when the rocket is loaded with propellant that is then drained. “We were offloading the vehicle and, during that offload, a valve failed, which led to an overpressurization and, ultimately, the loss of the vehicle.”

The company’s new Rocket 3.1 vehicle has corrected the problem “in three or four different ways,” he said, along with other, unspecified changes. Astra shipped Rocket 3.1 to Alaska in July for a launch now scheduled for no earlier than Aug. 2.

Astra, like Virgin Orbit, is setting expectations for what is officially an orbital launch attempt. “We don’t intend to hit a hole-in-one here,” said Chris Kemp, co-founder and chief executive. “We intend to accomplish enough to ensure that we’re able to get to orbit after three flights.”

The goal for this launch will be to get through the firing of the rocket’s first stage and separation of the upper stage. “We’ll be just delighted if that upper stage lights,” he said.

A LONG-AWAITED SHAKEOUT

The philosophy that both Astra and Virgin Orbit have taken — acknowledging that a first launch attempt is unlikely to succeed but is instead a learning experience to long-term success — is, on the one hand, wise. Betting it all on a successful first launch is dangerous, given the historic record that Virgin Orbit’s Pomerantz noted. SpaceX, after all, suffered failures on its first three Falcon 1 launches before finally making orbit.

Investors, though, may not share that patience. That’s especially true the last several months, as venture capital funds that had been a major source of funding for launch vehicle startups have second thoughts during the pandemic.

“It’s been difficult, especially if you’re early stage,” said Fred Kennedy, vice president of future missions at Astra, in an interview. “I think a lot of people have pulled back.”

That puts companies that already raised large rounds, like Rocket Lab and Relativity, at an advantage. “If you were lucky, you got your big funding round done right before COVID hit. Then you’re squared away,” he said.

Astra was working on a funding round when the pandemic hit, but has put those plans on hold. Kemp said the company furloughed some staff to save money. Most of those have returned with the exception of a few people he said aren’t needed until the company, currently producing one rocket a quarter, returns to a one-a-month rate.

“That was challenging for the team, but it did give us the time we needed to do these three launches before we raise capital again,” Kemp said. Even if the Rocket 3.1 launch is a success, London said the second of that series of three launches would be a few months later “at a minimum” depending on what changes Astra needs to make to the rocket.

Virgin Orbit has been more circumspect about its finances. Hart said in May that the company has a backlog of launch orders “in the hundreds of millions” of dollars, but didn’t otherwise discuss the company’s finances.

The combination of investors tightening their purse strings in the pandemic, while new and existing vehicles suffering failures, might serve as the inflection point for a long-anticipated shakeout in the small launch vehicle industry. If companies that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars are suffering launch failures or business setbacks, why would investors put money into another launch startup?

Even Rocket Lab, with its large order book and $140 million funding round in late 2018, is not immune to stumbles, as its recent launch failure showed. The company said July 31 that a “single anomalous electrical connection” caused a premature engine shutdown.

Beck didn’t bring up the failure when he appeared at the Techweek NZ conference July 27. “We feel like launch is a solved problem,” he said. “We’ve had a bunch of missions and we really feel like launch is, for us, just cranking the handle.”

From launch failures and financial setbacks to a pandemic and pitiless competition, an industry long buoyed by optimism is learning how unforgiving spaceflight can beLaunch, though, may be less of a solved problem than a problem that Rocket Lab and others have to solve, one launch at a time.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 3, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.