“Ten years ago, if I had gone to Silicon Valley and said ‘I want to raise money for rocket engines,’ I would have been laughed out of the room.”
Some $8 million later, investors are taking Joe Laurienti and his rocket engine startup, Ursa Major Technologies, a little more seriously.
Laurienti counts it a blessing that SpaceX and Blue Origin boosted investor confidence that there is money to be made in space launch. An alumnus of both companies, he is now trying to convince launch startups not to copy the billionaire model of building as much of their rockets in-house as possible, especially the most complicated part.
Founded in 2015, Ursa Major wants to build engines for companies building small launch vehicles. Most such ventures want to make nearly everything in house, just like SpaceX and Blue Origin. But Laurienti is counting on convincing at least a handful that they should leave the engines to Ursa Major.
“The first gut response is ‘our engines are special and we don’t have a company without our engines,’ but if there is a way to increase their margin by flying someone else’s engines, most companies will be interested in coming around,” Laurienti says.
The 2013 merger between Aerojet and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne combined the two primary producers of U.S. rocket engines into one. SpaceX cited its limited options when it set out to make its kerosene-fueled Merlin, the first new American booster engine since Rocketdyne completed the Delta 4’s RS-68 engines in the 1990s. Blue Origin has followed suit with its BE-3 and BE-4 engines.
Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and Vector Space Systems — three frontrunners fielding dedicated smallsat launchers — are building engines in house.
Currently, just two launch startups — Generation Orbit and ABL Space Systems — have gone public with plans to depend on Laurienti’s 26-person team in Berthoud, Colorado, to supply the engines for the satellite launchers they’re developing.
Atlanta-based Generation Orbit test fired its first Ursa Major rocket engine in June at Jacksonville, Florida’s Cecil Spaceport. The integrated ground test showed that the 5,000-pound-thrust-class Hadley engine, fed by “flight-like” liquid oxygen and kerosene propellant tanks, should be able to boost Generation Orbit’s air-launched GOLauncher-1 single-stage rocket to hypersonic speeds.
ABL Space Systems, an El Segundo, California-based startup led by former SpaceX and Virgin Orbit engineers, is designing its $17 million-a-launch RS1 rocket around a Hadley-powered second stage and a pair of first-stage “Ripley” engines Ursa Major is designing to deliver a combined 70,000 pounds of thrust. ABL is targeting its first launch for 2020.
Ursa Major raised $8 million last fall with participation from the Space Angels Network, a syndicate of early stage investors who have also backed NanoRacks, Made In Space, Planet and many other prominent space startups. The company counts former U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and former Northrop Grumman CEO Ronald Sugar as advisers.
“There is substantial potential for national security space, and a huge potential as well in the commercial market, particularly when looking at the communications needs of people on Earth,” James said. “For all of these reasons I believe in the future of micro and nanosat market, and they have to have propulsion systems to power them into space. That’s where a company like Ursa Major comes in.”
Like Laurienti, more than half of Ursa Major’s employees have stints at SpaceX or Blue Origin on their resumes. In the fall of 2016, Laurient’s team moved into a 6,300 square foot building in Berthoud, Colorado that once belonged to Ball Aerospace, and hotfired its first Hadley engine the following spring.
After 16 months crafting the first engine, Ursa Major has serially built eight to date, according to Laurienti. The company anticipates completing the larger 35,000 pound-thrust Ripley engine in 2020. Both engines use liquid-oxygen and kerosene as propellant.
Laurienti spoke to SpaceNews about why he thinks the time is right for a new U.S. propulsion provider.
SpaceX and Blue Origin have influenced startups to mimic their success with vertical integration, especially on engines. How do you break through that?
We look at it as the next step. We think SpaceX and Blue Origin had to vertically integrate.
In the aircraft industry, you don’t see Boeing building aircraft engines, and you certainly don’t see United Airlines building engines. Much like United Launch Alliance or SpaceX, United Airlines’ value proposition is to get something from A to B. We want to enable companies to not have to vertically integrate.
How do you convince launch startups your engines are better than what they can make?
Almost every first meeting we have with someone, whether they have an engine or not, their answer is “we have to build our own.” It just seems to be the common sense answer for a launcher company. But for us, focusing on the engine allows our company to take a higher risk, higher performing technical path. That’s exactly what we advertise.
That sounds well and good, but what does that mean in practice?
If we were a vertically integrated launch company, we would build the engines that most effectively got us to orbit in the timeframe needed and in the budget allowed. Those are very bespoke engines for one vehicle and one mission, whereas when we say we want to serve the entire launch market we know we have to make that engine higher performing, lower cost and lower risk. Because of that and because our entire team is only focused on the engines, it’s only natural that we would want to take the technical path that may be more risky than if it weren’t our end product but just the first step in a long process of getting to flight.
How do you tell people in a risk-averse industry that your engines are still safe?
I would say we took a risky path in development. We chose the engine cycle of oxidizer-rich staged combustion, which no company in America has ever done to make fire at the engine level. We picked a path that was traditionally seen as so high risk that the fallbacks were cycles like gas generator or even pressure fed for some small launchers. The proof is in the pudding that we’ve tested our engine for thousands of seconds over hundreds of tests, and while it may have been high risk from the onset, one of our major advantages is that we are now past that.
How are Ursa Major’s prospective customers expected to distinguish themselves from the competition given that the engine is so central to a vehicle’s cost, reliability and performance?
I would disagree with you there. Engines are definitely a discerning part of the vehicle, but our customers make their money by launching, so it’s going to be within launch operations that they distinguish themselves. Not every one of our customers will be flying the same configuration of vehicles. One might be flying a single engine of ours to get a cubesat to orbit and another might be using a cluster of many engines of ours to get larger satellites to orbit.
Why focus on small launchers?
We saw companies raise money that we knew could be improved upon technically, and we wanted to do exactly that. The second part is with all of these new companies, we saw a race, and that seems like the best time to get involved in any market. We might see 80 entrants and maybe three of them will succeed, but the winners circle can be heavily formed by new entrants.
Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Vector Space Systems and Firefly are all building engines similar to Hadley in house. Those four companies are arguably the front runners in a market that could easily swing from undersupply to oversupply. Is Ursa Major late to the party?
I don’t think so. Even if they have their own engines we offer some really unique assets to the companies that have their own engines. One is that our engines are higher performing and low enough cost that even if one of these companies doesn’t want to abandon the propulsion solution that they have, they can augment their mission profile by buying higher performance engines. So, much like the Delta and Atlas launchers that have different lift configurations, our engines can offer that to customers.
The other is that we know the value in avoiding recurring engine development. When watching SpaceX launch a Falcon 9, it’s a very different vehicle from the Falcon 9 that launched almost 10 years ago. SpaceX has gone through many development campaigns on their engines. At some point it’s safe to say Rocket Lab, Virgin, and Vector will all need to go through another development campaign on their engines and…it’s valuable to have another fallback option on the market.
Are you marketing your engines to non-U.S. customers?
That’s something we are really interested in. We kept an eye on the international market and we made sure our first products are commercial. We haven’t made any international sales yet, but we are definitely interested in it.
Are U.S. export laws an obstacle?
Yes, there are definitely regulatory barriers. A rocket engine is on the U.S. Munitions List, so there is a lot that we would have to go through, but from the extent we can tell this type of technology when used commercially is something the U.S. is happy to help export to the right people.
Besides government being a possible barrier to business, is the U.S. government a potential customer?
Yes, and we are keeping an eye on it, but we are small and focused on engine development. As we grow our business development effort, it will get more focus from us.
What are some of the technologies that have enabled you to design and build a new engine in 16 to 18 months?
Our Hadley engine is about 80 percent additively manufactured by mass. We designed things that can’t be made any other way except with additive manufacturing, so it is definitely a big enabler for us. Another is our co-location of facilities. Our engineers sit 20 yards from where our engine is tested on a daily basis, so we can run five or six tests in an eight-hour shift, and we don’t report to a test-stand owner. We own the test stand, and that enables rapid development.
How long do your engines take to manufacture?
If we hadn’t built up a backlog and a capability for production, the longest lead-time part is about six months. So it might take about six months to build an engine. But we are currently using demand signals to build up an inventory and ensure that when a customer needs an engine, assembly takes about three days. So hopefully we can pull parts off of our shelf and assemble it in three days, and then [perform] about a day of acceptance testing.
Will Ursa Major’s engines be reusable?
The quick and easy answer is we designed an expendable engine. We haven’t done direct life analysis to dub them reusable, but we’ve tested the same engine dozens of times for thousands of seconds, so if a customer had an application, we’re certain we could certify these as reusable.
The more interesting answer when it comes to reusability is our R&D. We want to make sure our Hadley engine is the little sister to our Ripley engine and we are reusing the things that are important for cost reduction and risk reduction.
Relativity Space raised $35 million for their effort to 3D print entire rockets. How does Ursa Major compete with a better-financed competitor that’s taking one of your technical advantages — additive manufacturing — even further?
Technology-wise we know our engines are miles ahead of Relativity right now because we have a turbo-pump — we’ve been testing the full system level. We’ve got a head start on the engines, we continue to build the best engines, and eventually those who aren’t flying them will hopefully come around.
“Miles ahead.” Do you think they would agree with you on that?
Yes. That’s not to say they can’t catch up, but we’ve been testing at a system level and they’ve been testing combustors. They’ve said it’s in their plan to develop a turbo-pump, we are just ahead on the engine side. That’s not to say anything bad about Relativity, it’s just that they have been focusing on the vehicle and we have been focusing on the engine. We know Relativity super well, and we like them a lot. Like all others out there, we hope they will fly our engines someday.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 13, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.