Rockets of Today

RFA — Germany

OHB is a company based in Bremen, Germany, which is up north near the Netherlands. They began back in the fifties as marine outfitters, then switched to aerospace in the eighties. They have 3000 employees, and subsidiaries all over Europe. One of them is called MT Aerospace. It’s in Augsburg, down south near Austria. They started working on a rocket, and the parent company split that effort into a new subsidiary: Rocket Factory Augsburg. It may be one of the better staffed and funded attempts at a commercial smallsat launcher.

So what are they coming up with? A small 3D-printed kerosene engine, a booster using nine of them, and a second stage with a large bell version of it — a very familiar pattern by now. No, wait — the booster is going to have thirteen engines now? No, it’s still nine, at least for now. So it’s a commonplace sort of design these days... but there are a couple of differences from what others are doing. One is that they are going for a staged combustion engine right from the start, without practicing on a gas generator first. Another is that, like SpaceX’s gigantic Starship, they are making their cryogenic tanks out of stainless steel, with common bulkheads. I’m told they went with steel before SpaceX did, and they arrived at that choice by running all their options through a set of automated tools to optimize performance and cost.. They’re also using carbon fiber, but only for secondary structural parts like the interstage. I don’t know how they bring the fuel down to the engines past the lox, or the lox past the fuel, with only a layer of steel separating the two, as I would expect the kerosene to freeze on that surface.

They claimed their engine was ready to run at full power and duration, without having actually tried it. This is not reassuring. But you gotta respect that they’ve built the first European staged-combustion engine, and gotten it to run for more than a few seconds.

They also have a kick stage, which is not optional. I guess it’s the only payload platform they offer. It supposedly uses “green” propellant, but details are not clear.

They keep talking about how their manufacturing techniques are like those used to make automobile parts. Their goal is to mass produce rockets like cars. Like Astra, their business plan looks like it will depend on volume to make a profit. Whether the market will provide such volume to them, or anyone, is not clear. They said they will launch from Norway, which means polar orbits only, or geostationary transfer with a bit of inefficiency. But then they said their first launches would be from Saxavord (formerly known as Shetland Space Centre), which is on the island of Unst — the northernmost part of Scotland. No, wait — now they’ve signed a deal to launch from the ESA’s Guyana Space Centre.

They say they’re going to go for reuse of the first stage, but there is no visible sign of this in what they’ve shown so far, nor have they offered any details. It looks like they’re going to get it working expendably first, then try for reuse later, which is sensible.

In early 2022, about a year before planned launch, they asked the public to name their engine. I would vote for calling it “Stage Mother”, but they went with “Helix”.

Honestly, their local rivals Isar may be closer to getting off the ground, but I wrote RFA up first just for being more innovative and interesting. And in spring of 2023 the odds for Isar are looking even better, as RFA’s parent OHB now wants to pull out, right when RFA is getting into the most expensive part of the development push preceding the first launch. They want to sell off a lot of their stake and leave the risk to someone else. The long-predicted shakeout of small launch companies may now be under way. But Isar just got fresh funding. But then in 2024 RFA was first to being a complete rocket to the pad, at SaxaVord in the Shetland Islands.

On the other hand, RFA claims their combination of high performance and cheap construction will let them underprice everyone — even SpaceX at their current prices. We’ve heard that tune before from companies like Astra and Vector... and I don’t think either of them is likely to recover.

And of course RFA has plans for a bigger rocket after they finish the small one. They also want to make a space station cargo capsule to put on top of it, which they are calling “Argo”.

RFA 1: mass unknown, diam 2.00 m, thrust unknown, imp unknown, staged combustion (kerosene), payload 1.6 t, cost hopefully $2M/t (riiiiight).