Commercial Rockets


Yet another tiny rocket family — the smallest of them all, in fact, at the time it was proposed. They said they’d be able to launch satellites from a trailer, though for the near term they’ll use fixed pads like anyone else. Vector Space Systems — later renamed Vector Launch — was founded in part by one Jim Cantrell, who was also a SpaceX founder but bailed out because he thought it wouldn’t make any money. They will also build micro-satellites, so customers who want to put something in space but don’t know how can get complete service. The booster design came from another small startup called Garvey Spacecraft Corporation, which Vector bought out, installing John Garvey as their chief technologist. I assume this explains the name change.

They are claiming they will be able to do a hundred launches a year, at a price possibly as low as $1.5 million each. If they succeed in getting the price that low, they’ll beat the Electron at its own game. But as yet, they’re not as far along; the Electron has reached space and the Vector has not, and their promised date for a first orbital attempt slipped months and months with no new date forthcoming. The hype was strong up to that missed date, and then they went suspiciously quiet.

They have made a couple of short test launches... but not of the full booster, only of a cut-down version with just one engine. One thing you notice immediately in those tests is how fast it gets going, and I think that might be realistic for the finished rocket. It has plenty more thrust than weight, and might put its payloads through some serious G forces.

Their two planned rocket models are called the R and the H, for “Rapide” and “Heavy” — a pair of names that both seem designed to provoke a face-palm, for different reasons. They use similar first stages, except the R has three little “LP-1” motors while the H has five. They burn liquified propylene, of all things (CH3CHCH2), with lox. Garvey is convinced it has the perfect combination of density and specific impulse to get a tiny rocket all the way up. (On paper I don’t see anything special about it compared to other light hydrocarbons.) Their second stages also use the stuff. The H would use a full sized second stage while the R uses a skinny one, barely over two feet wide, with an “LP-2” engine that produces just 4.4 kilonewtons. These are pressure-fed engines, with no pumps.

These are not the latest in high tech. Where other new rockets are all carbon fiber and 3D-printed inconel, on this one the framework appears to be welded out of square aluminum tubing. Maybe that’s just the test prototype.

The most interesting bit is the optional third stage, which apparently uses some kind of ion engine to achieve high orbits. They said the R was near ready and the H was for later development.

But now it’s looking like this may all be for naught, and all their Real Soon Now hype was highly exaggerated: in mid-2019 the company abruptly ran out of money and suspended operations, having made no new attempted launches for two years. They fired Jim Cantrell and put John Garvey in charge of trying to get the operation back on its feet. Stories started to leak out about heated disputes and high turnover among managers, with Cantrell getting a big share of the finger-pointing. All this comes as rather a shock for the many hopeful startups in the small-launch business, as Vector was considered one of the most solid and safe of the bunch. If they can fall apart this easily and quickly, maybe those who never got this far along will have an even tougher time staying solvent than they thought they would.

It looks like Northrop Grumman is getting their rocket work, and their tech for small satellites is going to Lockheed. I don’t think there were any competing bids in either case.

In 2020, Astra came out of stealth with a similar approach to rocketry: build something smaller than the electron out of relatively low-tech parts and materials, keeping it as cheap as possible... it looks like even if Vector had held together, Astra might have eaten their lunch... though on the other hand, Astra had to go through a lot of struggle to reach space.

In late 2020, new owner/investors announced a plan to try to revive the company, but switch to using conventional kerosene fuel instead of the propylene favored by Garvey. Meanwhile, Cantrell is starting a new company called Phantom which will buy already proven engines off the shelf for a rocket of about 400 kilogram capacity, and will also build satellites.

And just as we’re all starting to forget about Vector and have some hope that Phantom will get somewhere, here comes a late lawsuit, accusing Cantrell of funnelling investor funds into his pockets instead of his rockets. In fact, the suit is from the company itself, as it wends its way through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Cantrell says pish-tush to this and claims they owe him money.

Meanwhile, the Air Force program to encourage the development of new small launchers shifted its grants to a new company in Alabama called Aevum, which hopes to carry a small rocket to high altitude on a big turbojet-powered drone called RAVN-X, which they hope will reach mach 2.8 or more. In 2020 they unveiled a completed drone which they say is ready to fly, but nothing of the rocket that goes under it. They say it has two stages, and the upper one uses cryogenic propellants but the lower uses something novel, and that’s all we know.

Vector-R: mass 5 t, diam 1.2 m, thrust 75 kN, imp unknown, type Pv, payload 0.066 t (1.3%), cost hopefully $23M/t, record 0/2/0 (low altitude only).