Vector Space completes first test flight, aims for small sat market expansion

by Chris Gebhardt

Vector Space has conducted a crucial test of their Vector-R rocket that the company hopes will expand the small satellite launch market via small-scale launchers.  As SpaceX has disrupted the large scale market, so does Vector Space hope their new rocket system can disrupt the small scale market by eliminating the need for ride-share requirements small satellites currently face while significantly lowering the cost to small satellite customers.

Engineering test flights – paving the way for Vector-R:

The first engineering test flight this month for Vector Space Systems of a scaled-down version of their Vector-R rocket represented the first of what is understood to be six increasingly larger and complex test flights that will occur over the next year.

The first test flight, conducted on 3 May from the Mojave Desert in California, used a single-engine scaled-down model of the three-engine Vector-R rocket and allowed the company to test aspects of launch operations – including its infrastructure-lite launch architecture approach – for their rocket as well as portions of its 3D-printed components and pressure-fed engine design.

The suborbital test flight launched from the Friends of Amateur Rocketry site in California’s Mojave Desert at 12:00 PDT (19:00 GMT) on 3 May and reached a maximum altitude of 1,370 m (4,500 ft).

Following the flight, Jim Cantrell, Vector Space Systems co-founder and CEO, stated in a news release that “The success of this test not only sets the standard for the swift mobile development of our launch vehicles, but also furthers our mission to revolutionize the spaceflight industry and increase speed to orbit.”

This month’s test was the first of six scheduled test flights over the next year that will slowly ramp up the intensity and size of the test vehicles and Vector Space heads toward its first operational flight of the Vector-R rocket in 2018.

The second test flight, expected in July, will radically shift launch operations to a never-before-used location – the U.S. state of Georgia – and will highlight what Vector Space says is an innovative solution to various launch market needs with an ability to launch from locations outside the standard U.S. Ranges.

This Georgia test will occur from Camden County – the state’s southern-most county, which borders Florida’s north-eastern most boundary.

The launch site for the suborbital test – approximately 20 miles south of Brunswick, Georgia, and 35 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida – will be the first ever space launch from Georgia and represents what Vector Space Systems and the state believe to be the beginning of a long and prosperous relationship, one that could see Vector infuse 200 new jobs and over $100 million (USD) in investments for an assembly plant into Camden county.

Following completion of the Vector-R test flight series, Vector Space plans to introduce the Vector-R rocket for commercial launch operations in 2018.

From there, the company currently has 12 commercial launches for the Vector-R planned in 2019, with an eventual eye toward ramping up operations to 100 launches of the Vector-R later in its operational life.

Vector Space Systems – small scale launch for small satellite payloads:

Vector Space Systems, based in Tucson, Arizona, is a relatively new startup in the launch environment.

Founded by four people, the top team is comprised of highly qualified individuals with varied backgrounds – two of whom were involved with SpaceX in its founding and early days.

In large part, Vector Space Systems now seeks to do for the small satellite market what SpaceX did for the large-scale satellite launch market – disrupt it.

According to the company, Vector Space is a “disruptive innovator that connects space startups and innovators with affordable and reliable space access. Vector has a big vision to reshape the multi-billion launch market … to dramatically increase access and speed to orbit.”

In an exclusive interview with, Vector Space Systems’ Chief Technology Officer and co-founder, John Garvey, sat down with Chris Gebhardt to discuss various aspects of the company – specifically the reason for its creation and the small-scale satellite launch system being developed.

As for how Vector came together, Mr. Garvey noted that his business relationship with Vector CEO and co-founder Jim Cantrell stretches back decades, well before the two came together for some of SpaceX’s early operations.

“I was involved with Jim Cantrell in some of Elon’s early programs.  And Elon was really interested in some of the things we’d been doing as an alternative to NASA and the big military-industrial launch machine,” stated Mr. Garvey.

“Ultimately, I elected not to stay with Elon; I wanted to remain independent, and Elon was clearly interested in Mars.

“I’d been through that cycle a few times, and no matter how ambitious you are, you’re not gonna get to Mars in two years from a startup.  So I thought there were more short-term goals to focus on and make progress.”

This led Mr. Garvey to assemble a team to focus on the opposite end of the spectrum from SpaceX – the small-scale satellite market.

“What we’re trying to address is, unlike SpaceX and Blue Origin which are going for the huge mega launchers, we’re going for the folks who want to launch a lot of small spacecraft who need dedicated launches to service their requirements.

“It’s not always optimal for them to be going on secondary ride-shares that’ll take them somewhere that might not be optimal for them.”

That market, according to Mr. Garvey, has finally arrived – though far later than he would have liked.

In terms of the ride-share aspect to launch operations – specifically the one seen most recently on United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas V rocket – Mr. Garvey notes that for some customers the destinations Atlas V can drop them off on in after missions for the primary customer might be OK, especially for payloads that don’t need specific orbits for their experiments.

But, he notes that for the vast majority of small-sat customers, ride-share is not optimal.

“If you’re a company that has three satellites in a polar orbit that you need to replace, ride-share launching on an Atlas V or Delta IV or even a Falcon 9 for polar orbits is extremely limited.

“There are more options out of the Cape to equatorial orbits or even to the Space Station orbit, but those aren’t going to get you where you need to go,” notes Mr. Garvey.

“That’s like saying I can get you a flight to Ohio, but you really want to go to Florida.”

This group of small-sat customers that have orbits which aren’t readily or frequently serviced via ride-share agreements with ULA or SpaceX is the target group for Vector Space.

“We’re targeting people who have a specific schedule and a specific set of requirements who can’t be beholden to another company’s or organization’s ship.

“That’s one of the things you see with SpaceX; their manifest is very flexible.  They’re moving flights around all the time based on various factors.  And you’re seeing some real pain on the user community.

“So we’re going for those folks that need greater control over their mission requirements.”

Vector rockets – navigating a new launch frontier:

The focus on this particular customer base has resulted in Vector Space’s ongoing creation of a new class of small satellite launch vehicles.

According to Vector Space, the rockets will be capable of placing satellites into Polar and Sun Synchronous Orbits from this Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska, and into low inclination orbits for launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Given the radically different primary launch locations in terms of weather, Mr. Garvey spoke about the weather challenges Kodiak presents.

“In reality, with Kodiak being on the water, it’s actually far more moderate than other places in Alaska like Fairbanks or Anchorage.  So they do not get the 40-70 below zero fahrenheit killing conditions.

“So we’re not worried about the brutal cold, but what we are worried about is how the specific weather patterns throughout Alaska in the shipping routes affects year-round operations.”

One of the things Mr. Garvey stated that Vector Space learned in its initial examinations of how to use Kodiak as a year-round launch site is that while conditions might permit launches in every calendar month, the shipping transport services needed to get rockets and payloads to the launch location have winter weather constraints.

Specifically, transport ships needed to haul the rockets to the launch site are not available in the winter months due to sea ice constraints.

Mr. Garvey noted that Vector Space is developing an architecture that will allow the company to pre-position launch assets at Kodiak to avoid those winter transport stoppages so that all equipment needed to support launches is already positioned ahead of the winter months.

Specifically, Kodiak was chosen as a launch location for the Vector rocket family because of its access to polar orbits – which links directly to one of Vector Space’s key business considerations of making access to the polar orbit ranges more accessible for the small satellite market while simultaneously reducing the cost for access to space.

Toward the cost reduction aspect of the business model, Vector Space states that its smaller rocket, the Vector-R, flying in a two-stage to orbit configuration would cost a customer $1.5 million.

That price would increase to $2.5 million for an “on demand launch”.

“Right now, it’s not uncommon to come in one to three years before a launch and say ‘hey, I want to launch.’  If you go to SpaceX, you might have to wait two or three years for a spot on the manifest – and that doesn’t account for when you will actually launch,” noted Mr. Garvey.

“Right now, we’re in a business where everyone makes a rocket for a specific launch. You sign a contract and you start building the rocket.

“Our model is to say ‘OK, we’ll store three extra rockets up at Kodiak or over at the Cape, specifically for an on demand launch.’  And we’ll give customers the option of signing a standard contract for a launch out in the future or, if they want to pay a premium, we can be ready to go in as little as a week.”

In this way, Mr. Garvey – very much like Elon Musk has stated recently – related that Vector Space’s design is more of a transportation model (a la an airplane) than the build-per-mission model currently employed by ULA.

Mr. Garvey also specifically stated that this type of architecture and storing of extra rockets can be accomplished by keeping costs down.

Crucially, this comes not just from the manufacturing aspect of the business model but also from the design of the vector rocket first stages to be recoverable and reusable.

This very much follows the current trend brought to fruition in the marketplace by SpaceX.

For Vector Space, their system is not designed from the outset to be 100% reusable, but to instead rely on reusability with heavy refurbishment of certain components between missions.

A potential key difference in this business model from what is seen with SpaceX is that the reusability and refurbishment of the Vector Space rocket system is not designed to reduce cost to the customer.

Mr. Garvey noted that while there might be some cost reductions and cost curves associated with reusability and refurbishment of the Vector rockets, the main benefit for the company is the ability to conduct more launches in a given year by reusing and refurbishing its technology.

Interestingly enough, Mr. Garvey stated that this type of increased launch cadence for the small-sat market is a viable business model for Vector Space whereas the same type of launch cadence increase theory surrounding reusability of rocket stages is not possible for the large-scale satellite business SpaceX is a part of.

Vector-R – the smallest of the two rockets:

The Vector-R rocket is the smallest of the two rocket Vector launch system.  The rocket itself, in which the R stands for Rapide, will be capable of launching up to 60 kg (132.2 lb) into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) via its standard, two stage variant.

To accomplish this lifting task, the Vector-R rocket will be propelled through first stage flight by three 25,000 Newton (5,620 lbf) engines fed by Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and a highly refined propylene fuel mixture.

A small interstage adaptor will connect the first stage with the second stage, which is powered by a single 3,700 Newton (831.7 lbf) engine.

Under its two stage configuration, the Vector-R rocket stands 12 meters (39.3 ft) tall, with a first-stage diameter of 1.2 meters (3.9 feet).

Including payload, the vehicle would have a gross lift off weight to 5,000 kg (11,023.11 lb), carry no explosive ordnance, utilize an Autonomous Flight Termination System, and would use a pressurized fuel feed systems for its engines.

With a two-stage to orbit variant, the first stage engines would burn for a total of 143 seconds, shutting down at an altitude of 98 km (60.8 miles) and a down range distance of 96 km (59.6 mi) from the launch site.

Stage separation would follow, leading to second stage ignition 145 seconds after liftoff.

The second stage would then burn for 433 seconds, with Stage Engine Cut Off (SECO) occurring at an altitude of 450 km (279.6 miles) and a down range distance from the launch site of 2,000 km (1,242.7 miles) at a Mission Elapsed Time of 578 seconds.

Depending on the payload (or payloads), two fairing sizes are available, a basic fairing (86.36 cm x  63.5 cm — 34in x 25in) and an operational expanded fairing (for which dimensions are not publicly available) for larger passengers.

However, if a customer requires additional performance from the rocket, an optional third stage can be added.

In total, there are two third stage options available: a Mini Upper Stage that can place 35 kg (77.1 lb) into an 800 km (497 mile) orbit and an electric propulsion upper stage that can place 45 kg (99.2 lb) into an 800 km orbit.

Adding a third stage to the Vector-R rocket would bring the total standard contract price to $2 million over $1.5 million.  If a three-stage Vector-R rocket was purchased on demand, the total price would be $3 million.

Vector-H – ‘Heavy lift’ alternative:

In addition to the Vector-R rocket, Vector Space is also developing the Vector-H heavy variant, which will be capable of placing 125 kg (275.5 lb) into LEO with a simple two-stage design for launches from either Kodiak, Alaska, or the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The Vector-H would utilize five 25,500 Newton (5,732.6 lbf) engines for its first stage and a single 4,100 Newton (921.7 lbf) engine for its second stage.

Like the Vector-R, an optional electric third stage would be available.

This third stage would allow the placement of 125 kg (275.5 lb) of payload into 800 kilometer orbits.

The Vector-H would include a single 1.8 m x 1.06 m (71in x 42in) payload fairing.

Unlike the Vector-R, which is designed for up to 100 flights per year, the Vector-H is only designed for maximum flight rate of 25 missions per year during full operational capability.

The cost of a two-stage Vector-H rocket through a standard mission contract would be $3 million.

If a third stage were needed, the cost would increase to $3.5 million.

Vector-H on demand pricing for a two stage vehicle is currently understood to be $4 million.

A three stage on demand Vector-H would cost $4.5 million.

The Vector-H is currently slated to enter commercial service in 2019.

(This is the first of two articles will publish in the coming days regarding Vector Space Systems and their entrance into the commercial launch market.)

(Images: Vector, Google Maps, United Launch Alliance, Alaska Aerospace Corporation)

Related Articles