Commercial Rockets

RS1 — USA, 2021?

ABL Space Systems is working on a rocket quite similar to the Firefly Alpha, with three kerosene engines on the booster and a tiny one on the upper stage. It aimed to carry 1.2 tons, which is on the high side for a smallsat launcher, but if someone has a sat that size, it gives them a spot in the market with no competition from the other startup companies. They raised that goal to 1.35 tons once their engine performed better than planned. They quote a flat price per launch of $12 million, which is not that low compared to some of the other outfits. Rocket Labs sells Electron launches for significantly less, and Astra is promising they will dramatically undercut the Electron’s price. And heck, there’s a Russian/Spanish company called SpaceDarts which, if they can be believed, might someday be able to put something tiny in orbit for under $50,000 if you buy in bulk. Of course, they all have lower capacity.

Like many other smallsat companies, they are trying to leverage 3D printing to make an expendable rocket engine cheaply. But they use it only for selected components, such as the combustion chamber; for a lot of parts, they stick to copying designs already known to work dependably. Their whole philosophy is that innovation means nothing unless you know it will work, so proven reliability trumps all other goals. The rocket body is traditional aluminum. And like several other American builders of small rockets, they are trying to fulfill the Pentagon’s desire for a launcher which can be deployed very quickly. They plan to launch it from a heavy truck, like a Chinese ICBM. Furthermore, their long term plan is to so thoroughly automate the launch process that no live human being needs to be present at the site; someone can just push a button remotely and up it goes. They’re getting some Air Force Space Force money to pursue that goal. The Pentagon wants this to be doable from “austere” locations — like maybe they’re thinking of camouflaging the truck and keeping the launch site hidden.

The founders are former SpaceX engineers, notably Harry O’Hanley and Dan Piedmont, who are now CEO and CFO. And in 2021 they somehow sold Lockheed on a deal in which the larger company would hire them for dozens of launches. Nice work if you can get it, and quite a vote of confidence in a rocket that is far from ready.

RS1: mass unknown, diam 1.8 m, thrust 560 kN, imp unknown, type Gk, payload 1.35 t, cost hopefully $9M/t.