Aevum, an Alabama startup designing a drone-launched rocket in a former textile mill, went from winning a $50,000 study grant to landing a $4.9 million U.S. Air Force launch contract in the span of three weeks.
About a month later, on Oct. 10, Aevum then became one of eight launch service providers qualified by the Air Force to compete for $986 million worth of small- and medium-sized launch missions over nine years.
Before this spate of wins, Aevum was largely unknown, claiming to have hardware built and software written, but lacking the funds to conduct a first launch. The three-year-old startup hoped the $50,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) study contract it received in early August would serve as a springboard to larger awards. Turns out it didn’t have to wait long.
When small launch startup Vector abruptly suspended operations in early August despite just winning a $3.4 million contract for the Agile Small Launch Operational Normalizer (ASLON)-45 mission, the Air Force transferred the contract to Aevum just two week later.
The Air Force could have gone with a more established vehicle like Northrop Grumman’s air-launched Pegasus, but the military specifically wants to use the ASLON-45 contract to cultivate new launchers. “The ASLON-45 mission was developed as a small launch opportunity for emerging providers in the very small mass-to-orbit market niche,” Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise, said by email. “Based on market research, Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP) designated ASLON-45 as a small business set-aside — a first for Air Force space launch.”
Aevum is developing a launch system called Ravn X that would use a reusable, turbojet-powered drone to fly an expendable two-stage rocket into the atmosphere, where it would separate and reach space using liquid propulsion. Ravn X is designed to carry at least 100 kilograms to a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, or more to lower altitudes.
In an interview, Aevum founder and chief executive Jay Skylus said the company has already made considerable progress developing Ravn X, and was working on securing an inaugural customer for a maiden flight. Now it has one, thanks to the Air Force contract.
“It’s an extremely significant milestone for us,” the 28-year-old University of Alabama, Huntsville, alumnus told SpaceNews.
The Air Force contract requires the launch occur before Oct. 1, 2021. Skylus said ASLON-45 will likely be Aevum’s first launch, though the company is in discussions with other prospective customers who could require an earlier date.
Aevum has been designing Ravn X in Lowe Mill, a Huntsville arts and entertainment center known for its art classes and Friday-night concerts. Skylus said Aevum occupies just over 7,000 square feet of the 50,000 square-foot former textile mill owned by the company’s lead angel investor, Jim Hudson.
Skylus said he wanted Aevum to be surrounded by the creative energy of artists rather than the atmosphere of a typical research park. Aevum is the only non-art company at Lowe Mill thanks to its direct connection to Hudson, Skylus said.
With Ravn X design work mostly complete, Skylus said Aevum will conduct vehicle assembly and integration in Jacksonville, Florida, since the company plans to launch from the Cecil Spaceport there.
Huntsville will remain a location for tasks like software development and company operations, he said.
After Ravn X, the company plans to build a larger vehicle called Ravn that will be able to carry about 300 kilograms to sun-synchronous orbit. Skylus said Aevum doesn’t have a timeline for Ravn.
Aevum is seeking to differentiate itself from dozens of other small launcher startups by covering ground operations, launcher integration, logistics and more, instead of just providing a rocket.
“The market is littered with launch vehicles and subsystems. Customers want a single end-to-end solution to get hardware into space that is responsive and reliable. Aevum is it,” Skylus said in an Aug. 13 news release announcing its SBIR grant. The 90-day award is structured to help Aevum find a government “transition partner” to advance development of the company’s envisioned fully autonomous launch and space logistics service.
Aevum has set a goal of completing a mission in 180 minutes, starting from receiving a payload, and ending with data downlink from an orbiting satellite.
Northern Sky Research analyst Leena Pivovarova describes that target as “very ambitious,” and one that will require a strong logistics network.
“Regardless of feasibility, it will take them years to set all of this up and get to the point where there are no bottlenecks and everything runs as intended,” she told SpaceNews by email.
But given the number of small launchers under development globally — over 100 — Pivovarova said startups need to work toward advantages that will help them succeed in a crowded market. Major improvements on things like mobility, launch cadence and reusability will “help gauge how much traction or momentum they have now and will have in the future,” she said.
Other startups, notably Virgin Orbit and UP Aerospace, have also pitched rapid launch, recognizing the appeal to government users who may want to quickly introduce or replace a satellite for military purposes.
Mikhail Grinberg, a principal at the consulting firm Renaissance Strategic Advisors, said the U.S. government has for years desired a rapid launch capability, but that even if Aevum can complete a launch in three hours, it will need more than government launch contracts to sustain itself as a business.
“In order for Aevum to be on standby to provide that capability to government, they need to find a commercial market that will allow their operations to be continually available, because the government will not need to launch satellites every 180 minutes,” Grinberg said.
Skylus said Aevum’s long-term vision is a business supported predominantly by the commercial sector, but that its early customers are likely to be a mix of large government agencies and companies.
It is too soon to tell if Aevum will have SpaceX-like success disrupting the launch market, or if it will also go the way of Vector.
Asked if Aevum has sufficient funding to complete the Air Force’s ASLON-45 mission, Skylus said the company is “seeking partners who can provide domain expertise and strategic capital” to help it grow.
Aevum may also face tricky regulatory hurdles, since its vision for autonomous drone-launched rockets differs considerably from other launch systems, Pivovarova cautioned.
“Licensing may be more complex, as regulators have to get comfortable with this new model,” she said. “Uncertainty tends to impact the schedule in a negative way.”
Skylus wouldn’t disclose how many launches Aevum would need to conduct annually to break even, but said every launch will be “profitable with significant gross margins.” The company expects the reusable, self-flying nature of Ravn X to keep overhead costs low, he said. The vehicle’s interoperability with existing launch infrastructure helps further close Aevum’s business case, he said.
Skylus declined to say how much money Aevum has raised to date. The company consists of about 30 people, he said, counting contractors from partner organizations. One of those partners is providing the turbojet engine for the Ravn X drone, he said.
Bongiovi said the Air Force is confident in Aevum’s ability to succeed.
“From a technology and business standpoint, Aevum demonstrated the ability to meet the ASLON-45 mission requirements with their innovative launch service approach,” he said.
He cautioned, though, that working with startups can be risky business.
“The small launch arena is the perfect opportunity to challenge our industry partners with higher risk, higher reward missions,” Bongiovi said.
Bongiovi said the small launch industry has the potential to reduce launch costs and accelerate mission timelines, and that the Rocket Systems Launch Program program gives the Air Force the chance to seek out “revolutionary space launch solutions.”
For Aevum, the ASLON-45 contract is a chance to prove Ravn X checks that box.
“This is our first mission for the Department of Defense,” said Skylus. “We’re going to make sure it’s successful.”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.