Like a lot of companies that aspire to launch rockets, Vector has had its ups and downs along the way to the launch pad. But in an interview with Ars, Vector’s co-founder and chief executive, Jim Cantrell, said the micro-launch company is continuing to make progress toward space and intends to launch two rockets this year.
“Basically we’ve had to revise our development plan,” said Cantrell, who had previously hoped to see Vector make its first space launch in 2018. “No rocket’s ever been late; we’ll probably be the first one,” he added, with a laugh.
Vector’s new plan targets the launch of a suborbital rocket, Vector-R B1001, for June. (There is no formal launch date yet set, Cantrell said, because “stuff happens.”) This mission will have a customer, but Cantrell isn’t ready to say who yet. Then, before the end of the year, the company intends to fly its first orbital rocket, Vector-R B1003, from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska.
Under the new plan, Vector now plans to skip an intermediate step in the development of its Vector-R rocket, which had been dubbed B1002. While this core would have been capable of reaching orbit, it would have only a very small payload capacity, unable to carry much more than some instrumentation. “For us, this turned out to be a dead-end configuration,” Cantrell said. Therefore, the company now plans to move directly from the suborbital test launch into a vehicle with larger tanks and more capable LP-1 engines.
In recent months, Cantrell cited a number of challenges Vector has had to overcome. The partial government shutdown affected its operations, as have range closures at the Alaska spaceport for other tenants. Also, the rocket’s autonomous flight-termination system, provided by an outside vendor, failed qualification tests.
Then there has been the mass of the vehicle itself. The rocket’s engines and their novel use of a liquid oxygen and liquid propylene fuel have worked as intended, but the fuel tanks were too heavy. So engineers have been working to lower their mass, and Cantrell said they’re getting the vehicle’s weight where it needs to be to deliver a 60kg payload to space.
During the last 18 months, as it has been developing the Vector-R launch system, the company has also been scaling up to fly more frequently in the future. It has built engine and rocket test facilities near is Tucson headquarters, Cantrell said, as well as an “interim” factory capable of producing as many as 36 rockets a year. The company now has 170 workers, and Cantrell said Vector’s demand for engineers has exceeded his original estimates.
To date, Vector has raised just over $98 million, and it will need another “growth capital” round as it seeks to bring the Vector-R vehicle to the launch pad, and scale the company from development into operations. “This is a capital-intensive business,” Cantrell said.
There is yet time to join in the small satellite launch competition, but it is finite. With its fourth launch last week, Rocket Lab is clearly well ahead of the other new space startups seeking to deliver small payloads into orbit. But with just a 60kg capacity, and a lower price point, Vector still has a chance to make its mark in the micro-launch category.
Asked what advice Cantrell would offer himself, if he could go back in time to late 2015, when he, John Garvey, and others founded the company, Cantrell paused, and then offered this response: “I’d say, be patient.”