The Era of Small Launch Has Arrived

Launch
October 23, 2018
Author
Chad Anderson
Jessica Holland
October 23, 2018
Authors
Chad Anderson
Jessica Holland

Ten years ago last month, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 1 rocket into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), breaking new ground and setting in motion a chain of events that would create the entrepreneurial space industry as we know it today. That rocket was small—just 70 feet tall—and carried just a few hundred pounds of simulated cargo out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Having proved its capabilities, SpaceX went on to build bigger rockets, like the Falcon 9, which launches the spacecraft that restocks the International Space Station and can propel hundreds of thousands of kilograms into LEO.

One decade from that momentous event, commercial space is about to undergo another major shift and, again, it involves small launchers. While SpaceX is focusing its efforts on heavy-lift rockets, a new generation of startups is poised to start offering companies with lightweight payloads the chance to book an entire launch on a small rocket to themselves, at a price that’s lower per launch than ever before. This means that a nanosatellite business, for example, can get its hardware into orbit on its own timetable, rather than waiting to rideshare with other larger satellites, and start generating revenue as soon as possible.

At Space Angels, we’ve been forecasting the rise of small launch vehicles for some time, but as key players in this new subsector prepare to start offering commercial services in coming months, we’re starting to feel that the time for predictions is over. The era of small launch has arrived.

Vector’s first orbital launch expected this year

Among the small-launch startups poised to enter the market is Vector Launch Inc., a Space Angels portfolio company created by Jim Cantrell, a founding member of the SpaceX team. Vector was founded just 2 ½ years ago to develop and build small, simple and reliable launch vehicles that, Cantrell has said, were designed to be more like Model T Fords than Mercedes. The startup’s tiniest vehicle, the Vector-R, is just 43 feet long, can carry a maximum payload of 130lb and starts at around $1.5 million per flight. (For reference, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch costs over $60 million.) Vector-R has already had two successful suborbital flight tests and its first orbital launch is expected to take place by the end of 2018.

The Vector-R rocket
The Vector-R Rocket in Kodiak, AK

Vector’s aim is to streamline both the design of its rockets and the manufacturing process, in order to prioritize efficiency, reliability and a speedy launch cadence. Take propulsion, for example. In September 2018, the company filed a patent for a new type of rocket fuel made from liquid oxygen and propylene. This mixture can be made dense enough at low temperatures to fit into a small tank and doesn’t require the turbopumps that are used to increase fuel pressure in most rocket engines. This reduces the risk of bubbles in the propellant, and means one less component that needs to withstand the stresses of space. “We’re really building the simplest rocket possible,” Cantrell says.

The market response to this activity has been enthusiastic. In October, Vector closed a funding round of $70M, bringing its total investment raised to $90M. The same month, Cantrell said that Vector had signed or was close to signing letters of intent for launches valued at about $1 billion.

Startups race to corner the small-launch market

As Vector inches closer to offering a commercial service, dozens of other startups are experimenting with their own variations on small launchers. Virgin Orbit is among a cohort of companies figuring out ways to launch rockets from airplanes, drones, and even balloons, as a way of making them lighter and more efficient. Branson’s company says that its first launch could happen by the end of the year. Stratolaunch Systems, created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is developing a similar air launch-to-orbit system using the world’s largest airplane, and intends to start running test flights in 2019.

Meanwhile, New Zealand-based Rocket Lab successfully delivered four Earth-observing satellites to orbit with a second test launch of its small (56-foot) Electron rocket back in January, and has scheduled its first commercial launch for November. Australia- and Singapore-based company Gilmour Space Technologies is developing hybrid rocket engines that use a mixture of solid and liquid fuel and plans to start sending small satellites into LEO by the end of 2020. Other startups have even more radical plans to rethink what’s possible, such as Relativity Space. The Los Angeles-headquartered company is designing a 3D-printed rocket, with the ultimate aim of being able to manufacture a launch vehicle on Mars.

Unprecedented access to space lies ahead

While this flowering of activity is exciting, analysts predict market consolidation in the future, with the strongest small-launch startups cornering the market. This means that the race to commercial viability in the coming months is crucial, and Vector is in a strong position to become one of those that come out on top.

The company’s goal is to fly up to a dozen rockets next year, Jim Cantrell told CNBC recently, with the second, third and fourth flights expected to reach orbit carrying payloads from paying customers. Vector currently has the capacity to produce about 25 rockets per year, and will break ground on a bigger factory in Tucson, Arizona early in 2019.

All this activity will open up access to space in a way we’ve never seen before. It’s been a tumultuous ten years since SpaceX’s Falcon 1 first shot into the sky, with consequences that couldn’t possibly have been predicted by those watching it take off. As Vector and others gear up for their own exhilarating entry into the commercial small-launch market, they are likely to set off another chain reaction of innovation that will take us to places we can’t imagine in another decade’s time.

Ten years ago last month, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 1 rocket into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), breaking new ground and setting in motion a chain of events that would create the entrepreneurial space industry as we know it today. That rocket was small—just 70 feet tall—and carried just a few hundred pounds of simulated cargo out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Having proved its capabilities, SpaceX went on to build bigger rockets, like the Falcon 9, which launches the spacecraft that restocks the International Space Station and can propel hundreds of thousands of kilograms into LEO.

One decade from that momentous event, commercial space is about to undergo another major shift and, again, it involves small launchers. While SpaceX is focusing its efforts on heavy-lift rockets, a new generation of startups is poised to start offering companies with lightweight payloads the chance to book an entire launch on a small rocket to themselves, at a price that’s lower per launch than ever before. This means that a nanosatellite business, for example, can get its hardware into orbit on its own timetable, rather than waiting to rideshare with other larger satellites, and start generating revenue as soon as possible.

At Space Angels, we’ve been forecasting the rise of small launch vehicles for some time, but as key players in this new subsector prepare to start offering commercial services in coming months, we’re starting to feel that the time for predictions is over. The era of small launch has arrived.

Vector’s first orbital launch expected this year

Among the small-launch startups poised to enter the market is Vector Launch Inc., a Space Angels portfolio company created by Jim Cantrell, a founding member of the SpaceX team. Vector was founded just 2 ½ years ago to develop and build small, simple and reliable launch vehicles that, Cantrell has said, were designed to be more like Model T Fords than Mercedes. The startup’s tiniest vehicle, the Vector-R, is just 43 feet long, can carry a maximum payload of 130lb and starts at around $1.5 million per flight. (For reference, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch costs over $60 million.) Vector-R has already had two successful suborbital flight tests and its first orbital launch is expected to take place by the end of 2018.

The Vector-R rocket
The Vector-R Rocket in Kodiak, AK

Vector’s aim is to streamline both the design of its rockets and the manufacturing process, in order to prioritize efficiency, reliability and a speedy launch cadence. Take propulsion, for example. In September 2018, the company filed a patent for a new type of rocket fuel made from liquid oxygen and propylene. This mixture can be made dense enough at low temperatures to fit into a small tank and doesn’t require the turbopumps that are used to increase fuel pressure in most rocket engines. This reduces the risk of bubbles in the propellant, and means one less component that needs to withstand the stresses of space. “We’re really building the simplest rocket possible,” Cantrell says.

The market response to this activity has been enthusiastic. In October, Vector closed a funding round of $70M, bringing its total investment raised to $90M. The same month, Cantrell said that Vector had signed or was close to signing letters of intent for launches valued at about $1 billion.

Startups race to corner the small-launch market

As Vector inches closer to offering a commercial service, dozens of other startups are experimenting with their own variations on small launchers. Virgin Orbit is among a cohort of companies figuring out ways to launch rockets from airplanes, drones, and even balloons, as a way of making them lighter and more efficient. Branson’s company says that its first launch could happen by the end of the year. Stratolaunch Systems, created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is developing a similar air launch-to-orbit system using the world’s largest airplane, and intends to start running test flights in 2019.

Meanwhile, New Zealand-based Rocket Lab successfully delivered four Earth-observing satellites to orbit with a second test launch of its small (56-foot) Electron rocket back in January, and has scheduled its first commercial launch for November. Australia- and Singapore-based company Gilmour Space Technologies is developing hybrid rocket engines that use a mixture of solid and liquid fuel and plans to start sending small satellites into LEO by the end of 2020. Other startups have even more radical plans to rethink what’s possible, such as Relativity Space. The Los Angeles-headquartered company is designing a 3D-printed rocket, with the ultimate aim of being able to manufacture a launch vehicle on Mars.

Unprecedented access to space lies ahead

While this flowering of activity is exciting, analysts predict market consolidation in the future, with the strongest small-launch startups cornering the market. This means that the race to commercial viability in the coming months is crucial, and Vector is in a strong position to become one of those that come out on top.

The company’s goal is to fly up to a dozen rockets next year, Jim Cantrell told CNBC recently, with the second, third and fourth flights expected to reach orbit carrying payloads from paying customers. Vector currently has the capacity to produce about 25 rockets per year, and will break ground on a bigger factory in Tucson, Arizona early in 2019.

All this activity will open up access to space in a way we’ve never seen before. It’s been a tumultuous ten years since SpaceX’s Falcon 1 first shot into the sky, with consequences that couldn’t possibly have been predicted by those watching it take off. As Vector and others gear up for their own exhilarating entry into the commercial small-launch market, they are likely to set off another chain reaction of innovation that will take us to places we can’t imagine in another decade’s time.

Ten years ago last month, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 1 rocket into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), breaking new ground and setting in motion a chain of events that would create the entrepreneurial space industry as we know it today. That rocket was small—just 70 feet tall—and carried just a few hundred pounds of simulated cargo out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Having proved its capabilities, SpaceX went on to build bigger rockets, like the Falcon 9, which launches the spacecraft that restocks the International Space Station and can propel hundreds of thousands of kilograms into LEO.

One decade from that momentous event, commercial space is about to undergo another major shift and, again, it involves small launchers. While SpaceX is focusing its efforts on heavy-lift rockets, a new generation of startups is poised to start offering companies with lightweight payloads the chance to book an entire launch on a small rocket to themselves, at a price that’s lower per launch than ever before. This means that a nanosatellite business, for example, can get its hardware into orbit on its own timetable, rather than waiting to rideshare with other larger satellites, and start generating revenue as soon as possible.

At Space Angels, we’ve been forecasting the rise of small launch vehicles for some time, but as key players in this new subsector prepare to start offering commercial services in coming months, we’re starting to feel that the time for predictions is over. The era of small launch has arrived.

Vector’s first orbital launch expected this year

Among the small-launch startups poised to enter the market is Vector Launch Inc., a Space Angels portfolio company created by Jim Cantrell, a founding member of the SpaceX team. Vector was founded just 2 ½ years ago to develop and build small, simple and reliable launch vehicles that, Cantrell has said, were designed to be more like Model T Fords than Mercedes. The startup’s tiniest vehicle, the Vector-R, is just 43 feet long, can carry a maximum payload of 130lb and starts at around $1.5 million per flight. (For reference, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch costs over $60 million.) Vector-R has already had two successful suborbital flight tests and its first orbital launch is expected to take place by the end of 2018.

The Vector-R rocket
The Vector-R Rocket in Kodiak, AK

Vector’s aim is to streamline both the design of its rockets and the manufacturing process, in order to prioritize efficiency, reliability and a speedy launch cadence. Take propulsion, for example. In September 2018, the company filed a patent for a new type of rocket fuel made from liquid oxygen and propylene. This mixture can be made dense enough at low temperatures to fit into a small tank and doesn’t require the turbopumps that are used to increase fuel pressure in most rocket engines. This reduces the risk of bubbles in the propellant, and means one less component that needs to withstand the stresses of space. “We’re really building the simplest rocket possible,” Cantrell says.

The market response to this activity has been enthusiastic. In October, Vector closed a funding round of $70M, bringing its total investment raised to $90M. The same month, Cantrell said that Vector had signed or was close to signing letters of intent for launches valued at about $1 billion.

Startups race to corner the small-launch market

As Vector inches closer to offering a commercial service, dozens of other startups are experimenting with their own variations on small launchers. Virgin Orbit is among a cohort of companies figuring out ways to launch rockets from airplanes, drones, and even balloons, as a way of making them lighter and more efficient. Branson’s company says that its first launch could happen by the end of the year. Stratolaunch Systems, created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is developing a similar air launch-to-orbit system using the world’s largest airplane, and intends to start running test flights in 2019.

Meanwhile, New Zealand-based Rocket Lab successfully delivered four Earth-observing satellites to orbit with a second test launch of its small (56-foot) Electron rocket back in January, and has scheduled its first commercial launch for November. Australia- and Singapore-based company Gilmour Space Technologies is developing hybrid rocket engines that use a mixture of solid and liquid fuel and plans to start sending small satellites into LEO by the end of 2020. Other startups have even more radical plans to rethink what’s possible, such as Relativity Space. The Los Angeles-headquartered company is designing a 3D-printed rocket, with the ultimate aim of being able to manufacture a launch vehicle on Mars.

Unprecedented access to space lies ahead

While this flowering of activity is exciting, analysts predict market consolidation in the future, with the strongest small-launch startups cornering the market. This means that the race to commercial viability in the coming months is crucial, and Vector is in a strong position to become one of those that come out on top.

The company’s goal is to fly up to a dozen rockets next year, Jim Cantrell told CNBC recently, with the second, third and fourth flights expected to reach orbit carrying payloads from paying customers. Vector currently has the capacity to produce about 25 rockets per year, and will break ground on a bigger factory in Tucson, Arizona early in 2019.

All this activity will open up access to space in a way we’ve never seen before. It’s been a tumultuous ten years since SpaceX’s Falcon 1 first shot into the sky, with consequences that couldn’t possibly have been predicted by those watching it take off. As Vector and others gear up for their own exhilarating entry into the commercial small-launch market, they are likely to set off another chain reaction of innovation that will take us to places we can’t imagine in another decade’s time.

Ten years ago last month, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 1 rocket into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), breaking new ground and setting in motion a chain of events that would create the entrepreneurial space industry as we know it today. That rocket was small—just 70 feet tall—and carried just a few hundred pounds of simulated cargo out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Having proved its capabilities, SpaceX went on to build bigger rockets, like the Falcon 9, which launches the spacecraft that restocks the International Space Station and can propel hundreds of thousands of kilograms into LEO.

One decade from that momentous event, commercial space is about to undergo another major shift and, again, it involves small launchers. While SpaceX is focusing its efforts on heavy-lift rockets, a new generation of startups is poised to start offering companies with lightweight payloads the chance to book an entire launch on a small rocket to themselves, at a price that’s lower per launch than ever before. This means that a nanosatellite business, for example, can get its hardware into orbit on its own timetable, rather than waiting to rideshare with other larger satellites, and start generating revenue as soon as possible.

At Space Angels, we’ve been forecasting the rise of small launch vehicles for some time, but as key players in this new subsector prepare to start offering commercial services in coming months, we’re starting to feel that the time for predictions is over. The era of small launch has arrived.

Vector’s first orbital launch expected this year

Among the small-launch startups poised to enter the market is Vector Launch Inc., a Space Angels portfolio company created by Jim Cantrell, a founding member of the SpaceX team. Vector was founded just 2 ½ years ago to develop and build small, simple and reliable launch vehicles that, Cantrell has said, were designed to be more like Model T Fords than Mercedes. The startup’s tiniest vehicle, the Vector-R, is just 43 feet long, can carry a maximum payload of 130lb and starts at around $1.5 million per flight. (For reference, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch costs over $60 million.) Vector-R has already had two successful suborbital flight tests and its first orbital launch is expected to take place by the end of 2018.

The Vector-R rocket
The Vector-R Rocket in Kodiak, AK

Vector’s aim is to streamline both the design of its rockets and the manufacturing process, in order to prioritize efficiency, reliability and a speedy launch cadence. Take propulsion, for example. In September 2018, the company filed a patent for a new type of rocket fuel made from liquid oxygen and propylene. This mixture can be made dense enough at low temperatures to fit into a small tank and doesn’t require the turbopumps that are used to increase fuel pressure in most rocket engines. This reduces the risk of bubbles in the propellant, and means one less component that needs to withstand the stresses of space. “We’re really building the simplest rocket possible,” Cantrell says.

The market response to this activity has been enthusiastic. In October, Vector closed a funding round of $70M, bringing its total investment raised to $90M. The same month, Cantrell said that Vector had signed or was close to signing letters of intent for launches valued at about $1 billion.

Startups race to corner the small-launch market

As Vector inches closer to offering a commercial service, dozens of other startups are experimenting with their own variations on small launchers. Virgin Orbit is among a cohort of companies figuring out ways to launch rockets from airplanes, drones, and even balloons, as a way of making them lighter and more efficient. Branson’s company says that its first launch could happen by the end of the year. Stratolaunch Systems, created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is developing a similar air launch-to-orbit system using the world’s largest airplane, and intends to start running test flights in 2019.

Meanwhile, New Zealand-based Rocket Lab successfully delivered four Earth-observing satellites to orbit with a second test launch of its small (56-foot) Electron rocket back in January, and has scheduled its first commercial launch for November. Australia- and Singapore-based company Gilmour Space Technologies is developing hybrid rocket engines that use a mixture of solid and liquid fuel and plans to start sending small satellites into LEO by the end of 2020. Other startups have even more radical plans to rethink what’s possible, such as Relativity Space. The Los Angeles-headquartered company is designing a 3D-printed rocket, with the ultimate aim of being able to manufacture a launch vehicle on Mars.

Unprecedented access to space lies ahead

While this flowering of activity is exciting, analysts predict market consolidation in the future, with the strongest small-launch startups cornering the market. This means that the race to commercial viability in the coming months is crucial, and Vector is in a strong position to become one of those that come out on top.

The company’s goal is to fly up to a dozen rockets next year, Jim Cantrell told CNBC recently, with the second, third and fourth flights expected to reach orbit carrying payloads from paying customers. Vector currently has the capacity to produce about 25 rockets per year, and will break ground on a bigger factory in Tucson, Arizona early in 2019.

All this activity will open up access to space in a way we’ve never seen before. It’s been a tumultuous ten years since SpaceX’s Falcon 1 first shot into the sky, with consequences that couldn’t possibly have been predicted by those watching it take off. As Vector and others gear up for their own exhilarating entry into the commercial small-launch market, they are likely to set off another chain reaction of innovation that will take us to places we can’t imagine in another decade’s time.

The Era of Small Launch Has Arrived
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Ten years ago last month, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 1 rocket into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), breaking new ground and setting in motion a chain of events that would create the entrepreneurial space industry as we know it today. That rocket was small—just 70 feet tall—and carried just a few hundred pounds of simulated cargo out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Having proved its capabilities, SpaceX went on to build bigger rockets, like the Falcon 9, which launches the spacecraft that restocks the International Space Station and can propel hundreds of thousands of kilograms into LEO.

One decade from that momentous event, commercial space is about to undergo another major shift and, again, it involves small launchers. While SpaceX is focusing its efforts on heavy-lift rockets, a new generation of startups is poised to start offering companies with lightweight payloads the chance to book an entire launch on a small rocket to themselves, at a price that’s lower per launch than ever before. This means that a nanosatellite business, for example, can get its hardware into orbit on its own timetable, rather than waiting to rideshare with other larger satellites, and start generating revenue as soon as possible.

At Space Angels, we’ve been forecasting the rise of small launch vehicles for some time, but as key players in this new subsector prepare to start offering commercial services in coming months, we’re starting to feel that the time for predictions is over. The era of small launch has arrived.

Vector’s first orbital launch expected this year

Among the small-launch startups poised to enter the market is Vector Launch Inc., a Space Angels portfolio company created by Jim Cantrell, a founding member of the SpaceX team. Vector was founded just 2 ½ years ago to develop and build small, simple and reliable launch vehicles that, Cantrell has said, were designed to be more like Model T Fords than Mercedes. The startup’s tiniest vehicle, the Vector-R, is just 43 feet long, can carry a maximum payload of 130lb and starts at around $1.5 million per flight. (For reference, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch costs over $60 million.) Vector-R has already had two successful suborbital flight tests and its first orbital launch is expected to take place by the end of 2018.

The Vector-R rocket
The Vector-R Rocket in Kodiak, AK

Vector’s aim is to streamline both the design of its rockets and the manufacturing process, in order to prioritize efficiency, reliability and a speedy launch cadence. Take propulsion, for example. In September 2018, the company filed a patent for a new type of rocket fuel made from liquid oxygen and propylene. This mixture can be made dense enough at low temperatures to fit into a small tank and doesn’t require the turbopumps that are used to increase fuel pressure in most rocket engines. This reduces the risk of bubbles in the propellant, and means one less component that needs to withstand the stresses of space. “We’re really building the simplest rocket possible,” Cantrell says.

The market response to this activity has been enthusiastic. In October, Vector closed a funding round of $70M, bringing its total investment raised to $90M. The same month, Cantrell said that Vector had signed or was close to signing letters of intent for launches valued at about $1 billion.

Startups race to corner the small-launch market

As Vector inches closer to offering a commercial service, dozens of other startups are experimenting with their own variations on small launchers. Virgin Orbit is among a cohort of companies figuring out ways to launch rockets from airplanes, drones, and even balloons, as a way of making them lighter and more efficient. Branson’s company says that its first launch could happen by the end of the year. Stratolaunch Systems, created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is developing a similar air launch-to-orbit system using the world’s largest airplane, and intends to start running test flights in 2019.

Meanwhile, New Zealand-based Rocket Lab successfully delivered four Earth-observing satellites to orbit with a second test launch of its small (56-foot) Electron rocket back in January, and has scheduled its first commercial launch for November. Australia- and Singapore-based company Gilmour Space Technologies is developing hybrid rocket engines that use a mixture of solid and liquid fuel and plans to start sending small satellites into LEO by the end of 2020. Other startups have even more radical plans to rethink what’s possible, such as Relativity Space. The Los Angeles-headquartered company is designing a 3D-printed rocket, with the ultimate aim of being able to manufacture a launch vehicle on Mars.

Unprecedented access to space lies ahead

While this flowering of activity is exciting, analysts predict market consolidation in the future, with the strongest small-launch startups cornering the market. This means that the race to commercial viability in the coming months is crucial, and Vector is in a strong position to become one of those that come out on top.

The company’s goal is to fly up to a dozen rockets next year, Jim Cantrell told CNBC recently, with the second, third and fourth flights expected to reach orbit carrying payloads from paying customers. Vector currently has the capacity to produce about 25 rockets per year, and will break ground on a bigger factory in Tucson, Arizona early in 2019.

All this activity will open up access to space in a way we’ve never seen before. It’s been a tumultuous ten years since SpaceX’s Falcon 1 first shot into the sky, with consequences that couldn’t possibly have been predicted by those watching it take off. As Vector and others gear up for their own exhilarating entry into the commercial small-launch market, they are likely to set off another chain reaction of innovation that will take us to places we can’t imagine in another decade’s time.

Ten years ago last month, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 1 rocket into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), breaking new ground and setting in motion a chain of events that would create the entrepreneurial space industry as we know it today. That rocket was small—just 70 feet tall—and carried just a few hundred pounds of simulated cargo out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Having proved its capabilities, SpaceX went on to build bigger rockets, like the Falcon 9, which launches the spacecraft that restocks the International Space Station and can propel hundreds of thousands of kilograms into LEO.

One decade from that momentous event, commercial space is about to undergo another major shift and, again, it involves small launchers. While SpaceX is focusing its efforts on heavy-lift rockets, a new generation of startups is poised to start offering companies with lightweight payloads the chance to book an entire launch on a small rocket to themselves, at a price that’s lower per launch than ever before. This means that a nanosatellite business, for example, can get its hardware into orbit on its own timetable, rather than waiting to rideshare with other larger satellites, and start generating revenue as soon as possible.

At Space Angels, we’ve been forecasting the rise of small launch vehicles for some time, but as key players in this new subsector prepare to start offering commercial services in coming months, we’re starting to feel that the time for predictions is over. The era of small launch has arrived.

Vector’s first orbital launch expected this year

Among the small-launch startups poised to enter the market is Vector Launch Inc., a Space Angels portfolio company created by Jim Cantrell, a founding member of the SpaceX team. Vector was founded just 2 ½ years ago to develop and build small, simple and reliable launch vehicles that, Cantrell has said, were designed to be more like Model T Fords than Mercedes. The startup’s tiniest vehicle, the Vector-R, is just 43 feet long, can carry a maximum payload of 130lb and starts at around $1.5 million per flight. (For reference, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch costs over $60 million.) Vector-R has already had two successful suborbital flight tests and its first orbital launch is expected to take place by the end of 2018.

The Vector-R rocket
The Vector-R Rocket in Kodiak, AK

Vector’s aim is to streamline both the design of its rockets and the manufacturing process, in order to prioritize efficiency, reliability and a speedy launch cadence. Take propulsion, for example. In September 2018, the company filed a patent for a new type of rocket fuel made from liquid oxygen and propylene. This mixture can be made dense enough at low temperatures to fit into a small tank and doesn’t require the turbopumps that are used to increase fuel pressure in most rocket engines. This reduces the risk of bubbles in the propellant, and means one less component that needs to withstand the stresses of space. “We’re really building the simplest rocket possible,” Cantrell says.

The market response to this activity has been enthusiastic. In October, Vector closed a funding round of $70M, bringing its total investment raised to $90M. The same month, Cantrell said that Vector had signed or was close to signing letters of intent for launches valued at about $1 billion.

Startups race to corner the small-launch market

As Vector inches closer to offering a commercial service, dozens of other startups are experimenting with their own variations on small launchers. Virgin Orbit is among a cohort of companies figuring out ways to launch rockets from airplanes, drones, and even balloons, as a way of making them lighter and more efficient. Branson’s company says that its first launch could happen by the end of the year. Stratolaunch Systems, created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is developing a similar air launch-to-orbit system using the world’s largest airplane, and intends to start running test flights in 2019.

Meanwhile, New Zealand-based Rocket Lab successfully delivered four Earth-observing satellites to orbit with a second test launch of its small (56-foot) Electron rocket back in January, and has scheduled its first commercial launch for November. Australia- and Singapore-based company Gilmour Space Technologies is developing hybrid rocket engines that use a mixture of solid and liquid fuel and plans to start sending small satellites into LEO by the end of 2020. Other startups have even more radical plans to rethink what’s possible, such as Relativity Space. The Los Angeles-headquartered company is designing a 3D-printed rocket, with the ultimate aim of being able to manufacture a launch vehicle on Mars.

Unprecedented access to space lies ahead

While this flowering of activity is exciting, analysts predict market consolidation in the future, with the strongest small-launch startups cornering the market. This means that the race to commercial viability in the coming months is crucial, and Vector is in a strong position to become one of those that come out on top.

The company’s goal is to fly up to a dozen rockets next year, Jim Cantrell told CNBC recently, with the second, third and fourth flights expected to reach orbit carrying payloads from paying customers. Vector currently has the capacity to produce about 25 rockets per year, and will break ground on a bigger factory in Tucson, Arizona early in 2019.

All this activity will open up access to space in a way we’ve never seen before. It’s been a tumultuous ten years since SpaceX’s Falcon 1 first shot into the sky, with consequences that couldn’t possibly have been predicted by those watching it take off. As Vector and others gear up for their own exhilarating entry into the commercial small-launch market, they are likely to set off another chain reaction of innovation that will take us to places we can’t imagine in another decade’s time.

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