Crash on Launch Pad, Orbital Failure Mark Bad Week for Small Rocket Companies

Jan. 13, 2023
Who will become the next SpaceX? Maybe nobody, but there are nearly a dozen small-rocket companies actively hunting for a piece of the launch service pie. Two of those companies did not have good weeks.

Who will become the next SpaceX? Maybe nobody, but there are nearly a dozen small-rocket companies actively hunting for a piece of the launch service pie. Two of those companies did not have good weeks.

First, Virgin Orbit, that uses a modified Boeing 747 to drop a rocket from mid-air that is supposed to launch into space to deliver its payloads into orbit, suffered an “anomoly” during a launch Tuesday during which the second stage failed while in space losing its payloads.

Then on Wednesday, ABL Systems got its RS1 rocket off the launch pad during an attempt from the Kodiak, Alaska spaceport, but all of the engines on the first stage shut down causing it to crash back down on the launch pad.

The roadblocks to reliable launch service are not unexpected as new companies try out their hardware for the first time, although Virgin Orbit had already made four successful launches from 2021-2022.

Founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Orbit uses what had previously been a Virgin Atlantic jet, but renamed “Cosmic Girl.” Now headquartered in Long Beach, California, it’s now a publicly-traded company listed on NASDAQ. Its stock, which was trading near $10 a share one year ago have declined since and closed at $1.69 on Wednesday.

It dropped the LauncherOne system rocket from the plane on its first international attempt having taken off from Cornwall, England and flying over the Atlantic, part of an effort in the United Kingdom to become a hub for small satellite launches for Europe. Previous flights had come out of California.

Although the rocket made it into space, issues with the second stage engine at 11,000 mph led to its destruction. Lost were nine small satellites including two for an international cooperative effort among the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, U.K. Universities and the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense.

Although its first flight in 2020 failed, this is the first time the rocket has failed with customer payloads on board.

“While we are very proud of the many things that we successfully achieved as part of this mission, we are mindful that we failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “The first-time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team professionally managed through; however, in the end a technical failure appears to have prevented us from delivering the final orbit. We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, make corrective actions, and return to orbit as soon as we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process.”

For ABL Space Systems, the failure at the launch pad comes on its first ever launch attempt.

“Early in today’s flight, all nine of RS1′s E2 engines shut down simultaneously. RS1 impacted the pad and was destroyed,” reads an update from the company’s Twitter account. “As expected in this scenario, there is damage to the launch facility. All personnel are safe, and fires have subsided. We’ll plan our return to flight after investigations are complete. Thanks to our stakeholders and the space community for the expressions of support.”

The company will have make repairs at the pad and work through the issues with the FAA.

“This is not the outcome we were hoping for today, but one that we prepared for. We’ll revert with additional information when available,” the company posted. “We are chomping at the bit for Flight 2. More to come.”

The El Segundo, California-based company, though, is suffering through what other launch service providers have seen during initial rocket launch attempts. Elon Musk’s SpaceX suffered three failures of its original Falcon 1 rocket from 2006-2008 before finally reaching orbit on the fourth try.

Astra Space didn’t reach orbit until its fifth try with its now-retired Rocket 3 design, and it only managed two successful orbital launches, both from Alaska, out of nine attempts including two failures from Cape Canaveral in 2022, both for NASA, that destroyed their payloads when they had second-stage issues. It’s now working on a new rocket design that likely won’t be ready until 2024.

The Alameda, California-based company had stock trading near $20 a share in February 2021, and now trades at only around $0.50 a share.

Firefly Aerospace, based out of Cedar Park, Texas, managed its first-ever orbital launch in October 2022 with its Alpha rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base. Its first attempt in 2021, though, also saw the rocket destroyed during flight.

Next at bat is Long Beach, California-based startup Relativity Space with its 3D-printed Terran 1 rocket awaiting approval to launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The completed rocket was rolled out for the first time to Launch Complex 16 in December.

The first launch attempt is dubbed the “GLHF” mission, as in “Good Luck, Have Fun.” It’s flying with a test payload only, but the company has several launches planned for NASA and private satellite companies if it can get its rocket into space successfully.

Relativity is the last of three companies awarded the second round of Venture Class Launch Services contracts from NASA to put small satellites into orbit. Astra Space failed on their VCLS-2 launch and Firefly has its attempt coming up this year. The first VCLS contract went to Virgin Orbit, a previous iteration of Firefly and Long Beach, California-based Rocket Lab. Both Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab managed to successfully launch their two missions.

Rocket Lab, which has flown 32 missions to date with its Electron rocket, is the closest thing to a success story in line with how SpaceX has grown. Its first test launch in 2017 failed along with two other failed orbital insertions for payloads in 2020 and 2021, but it has had 12 successful launches in a row, and the company has even dabbled in first-stage rocket recovery trying to capture them with a helicopter snagging its parachutes.

While all of its previous launches have flown from New Zealand, the company is breaking into the U.S. with its first attempt coming later this month from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore in Virginia. The “Virginia is for Launch Lovers” mission to send three satellites up for a commercial company is slated to fly on Jan. 23. It’s planning several launches from the U.S. this year including picking up the pieces of Astra Space’s failed TROPICS satellite mission, sending up the remaining four of what had been six satellites, the first two of which were destroyed last summer.

Rocket Lab began trading on NASDAQ in 2021 with its shares currently valued around $4.50.

ABL Space Systems, Relativity Space and Firefly Aerospace all remain privately-funded companies.

Other rocket companies that have yet to fly include Tucson, Arizona-based Phantom Space with its Daytona rocket, Brunswick, Maine-based BluShift Aerospace with its Starless Rogue rocket, and Cocoa, Florida-based Vaya Space with its Dauntless rocket.

These companies’ rockets are small in comparison to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Northrop Grumman Antares and United Launch Alliance Atlas and upcoming Vulcan Centaurs, which make up the majority of U.S.-based launches each year.

But the small-satellite market demand remains, which keeps driving their efforts, even if the hardware keeps crash or burning up in space, said Frank DiBello, President and CEO of Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency.

He said that while the “irrational exuberance” of companies going public and investing that drove 2021 was dialed back in 2022, but “they’re still incredibly flush, and they are really looking actively at continued space investing and we were very optimistic about what will happen as we go forward.”

Space Florida tracks 34 satellite constellations such as those from SpaceX and OneWeb that he projects will reach somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 satellites by the end of the decade.

“What’s driving all of that is all of you and all of us, and our insatiable demand for bandwidth and the need for global connectivity across the globe in every country,” he said. “The slowest speed that anyone will tolerate is the fastest speed that we’ve ever had, and that is really driving this rush of capital into satellites and global connectivity that is really important.”

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