The rocket startup ABL Area is aiming for the primary RS1 launch in a couple of months

The first stage of the company’s RS1 missile after welding is complete.

ABL Space

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Founded by veterans of SpaceX and Morgan Stanley, rocket-building startup ABL Space is in the final stages of preparations for its first launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“We are tracking vehicle readiness in March,” ABL President and CFO Dan Piedmont told CNBC on Monday during a tour of the company’s facilities in Los Angeles.

“We are working on the final planning steps with the [Vandenberg launch] Offer. We believe this could propel us into the second quarter, so it is not planned earlier than March, but later than June, “added Piedmont.

ABL’s first launch is the latest company on the verge of offering yet another option for satellites and spacecraft to enter orbit the increasingly competitive private rocket builder subsector. ABL would hit the market as an option between Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Rocket Lab, and the time for the first try comes when several other companies are in orbit for the first time.

ABL has raised $ 49 million in venture capital to date, including with Venrock, New Science Ventures, Lynett Capital and Lockheed Martin Ventures. In addition, ABL previously announced that it has received contracts from the Air Force Research Laboratory and AFWERX for $ 44.5 million over a period of three years.

“We believe that the program is fully funded well beyond the first launch and until the start of our sixth, seventh and eighth missions and beyond,” said Piedmont.

Harry O’Hanley, ABL’s CEO, said the company has been focusing in recent months on running integrated testing of the upper stage of its RS1 missile at Edwards Air Force Base, including firing its proprietary E2 engine. One of the key remaining milestones is a full duration upper tier test fire, which O’Hanley says is “the next big one on the roadmap”.

The RS1 missile

A fully integrated second RS1 stage in the test fire at Edwards Air Force Base in 2020.

ABL Space

ABL’s RS1 rocket is 88 feet tall and can put up to 1,350 kilograms (or nearly 1½ tons) of payload into near-earth orbit – at a cost of $ 12 million per launch. This puts RS1 in the middle of the commercial launch market, between the small Electron from Rocket Lab for $ 7 million and the heavy Falcon 9 from SpaceX for $ 62 million.

ABL is also competing against several other companies developing “medium-lift” rockets due to enter orbit this year, such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, Relativity Space and Firefly Aerospace.

RS1 consists of an aluminum alloy. When ABL first started designing the rocket, Piedmont said it had received offers from suppliers on how much it would cost for each part using traditional manufacturing methods.

Then ABL started vertically integrating as many parts of the RS1 manufacturing as possible, e.g. B. Design the E2 motors to be 3D printed in three parts and fit into readily available metal printers.

“With the verticalization that we’ve done, as well as the process improvements we’ve found in the primary structures, turbo pumps, engines, avionics and elsewhere, we’re seeing about 25% of that

at stated costs, “said Piedmont, or” about 75% cost savings based on this portfolio of improvements. “

O’Hanley and Piedmont met as students at MIT before the former worked at SpaceX for nearly six years and the latter began his career at Morgan Stanley’s institutional finance group. In mid-2017, O’Hanley began gathering ideas from Piedmont about starting a new missile company, and the couple decided to create it together, officially launching ABL in August 2017.

“The way we’ve built our business across the board has always been a breeze. We’ve never hired a vice president,” said O’Hanley. “When we realized we needed a machine shop, we hired a machinist and bought a machine.”

Piedmont said ABL’s “second hire was actually a web developer” because “all of the software we use to run our processes is custom”. He and O’Hanley wanted even ABL’s manufacturing software to be built in-house. “Before we even start designing the vehicle, we enter software systems that we can use to purchase inventory, submit work orders and create orders, and run tests and collect data for review.”

“We built this side of our infrastructure together with the vehicle ourselves, which I think is an underrated aspect of how we stay nimble and move fast,” added Piedmont.

ABL currently employs around 105 people with an area of ​​around 90,000 square meters in several buildings in El Segundo as well as test facilities at Edwards Air Force Base and in Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“We can build and ship a launcher roughly every 30 days based on the infrastructure we have now,” Piedmont said. “We’re chasing eight or nine [rockets] one year based on the existing infrastructure. “

While ABL has significant contracts and relationships with the Pentagon, the company’s customer pipeline is 60% private or commercial companies, and 40% government payloads, according to Piedmont. The company has hired customers to launch payloads on its first missions, although ABL may be able to fly mass simulators on the initial RS1 launch, which is often a concrete slab that represents the weight of a spacecraft.

The $ 100 million spending was the benchmark for a 21st century rocket builder who first made it into orbit. SpaceX and Rocket Lab, the two private companies that currently fly regularly, each spent about that much – and even Astra, which was just about to enter orbit with its first space launch last month, had around $ 100 million Dollars raised by investors.

But ABL believes it will hit orbit in less than four years from its inception, and at a cheaper price.

“Our total spend up to the day we ran the integrated tier test in October was $ 25 million. This gives us great confidence that we will complete the orbital program for well under $ 100 million.” said Piedmont.

The start system GS0

One of the shipping containers in which the deployable GS0 start system infrastructure is located.

ABL Space

In addition to the rocket itself, ABL is also promoting the efficiency of its deployable GS0 ground system. It’s essentially a launch system’s barebones – the erector, gas station, electrics, control center, and more – all packaged in a few standard-size shipping containers.

“The GS0 system offers us some enormous advantages, since in terms of infrastructure we only need a flat concrete slab and everything else that we can build here at El Segundo and then deliver to the location,” said Piedmont.

A diagram of ABL’s mobile launch system.

ABL Space

The development of the system is complete. ABL is now building GS0. In addition to flexibility and simplicity, ABL sees GS0 as a “responsive start,” said O’Hanley – a feature the US military wants to leverage.

“We actually signed a contract with the Space Force to demonstrate some of these activities on-site. We are essentially working with them to get a rocket vertical and see how quickly we fill it up and prepare for launch can.” Said O’Hanley.

“Short call times are huge business for what we do and we have a number of concepts for the DOD where RS1s can be stored on the base ready to go for that fast call time. Part of the light weight is the startup infrastructure , the mobile launch site, should make this possible, “he added.

He noted that ABL will be holding this demonstration for the Space Force later this year.

Reusability considered

A composite image showing a Falcon 9 rocket booster taking off and landing back near the launch pad a few minutes later.

SpaceX

The practice, and not just theory, of reusing rockets to save money and time has steadily grown in importance in recent years, in large part due to SpaceX’s success in landing its rocket boosters. Rocket Lab has also started bailing out its electron rocket, although the boosters were originally designed to be expendable.

While RS1 was designed to be expendable, O’Hanley and Piedmont emphasized that ABL did not rule out upgrading the missile to be reusable in the future.

“If we throw these away every time, it’s perfectly fine for our purposes and the books look great,” said O’Hanley. “If we were to make a reusable rocket, it would probably be driven by logistics and cycle time, manufacturing rather than cost.”

Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, has similarly cited production speed as the primary reason for rocket reuse, rather than the cost-saving benefit that SpaceX leadership often cites as a motivation.

O’Hanley said ABL does not consider reusing it until its first launch because “the moment the circumference is minimized, the pad is reached, it is successful”.

“I think if we scale we will rate it after the first start,” said O’Hanley.

He added that ABL has the right team to make its rockets reusable as he led work on the “grid fin” system that SpaceX uses to steer its Falcon 9 rockets as they return through the atmosphere. Other employees with similarly strong family trees for reusability – for example members of the team that carried out the first renovation of a Falcon 9.

“So reuse isn’t in our current short-term plans, but it’s something we’re likely to be set for in the future,” said O’Hanley.

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