Rocket engine startup sees opportunities in crowded launch market

Will Roper: Digital engineering and additive manufacturing are helping the propulsion industry do things faster

WASHINGTON — The small launch sector is crowded, and getting more so. But Will Roper believes there is still room in the market for suppliers of rocket engines that innovate fast and adapt to changing demands.

Roper, former assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics for the U.S. Air Force, is now an advisor to Ursa Major Technologies, a Colorado-based startup that makes liquid engines for small rockets and is looking to move into the medium-vehicle market.

The company’s business model is based on the idea that while many launch providers make their own propulsion systems, others will choose outsourcing so they don’t have to invest money and time in risky engine development. 

“If a propulsion company has a leg up in terms of price or reliability, it’s too much of a capital expenditure for a launch company or an integration company a vertically integrated company to try to go compete against that,” Roper told SpaceNews. 

Digital engineering and additive manufacturing technologies like those used to build Formula 1 racing cars “are helping the propulsion industry do things faster than ever,” said Roper. “The same paradigm that has made Formula 1 a digitally based sport, we will see those same dividends within propulsion and other industries as well.”

Ursa Major has secured some commercial deals but none of the company’s engines have flown to space yet. Customers like C6 Launch and Aevum expect to start launching payloads in the next year or two. Their vehicles use Ursa Major’s 5,000-pound thrust liquid oxygen and kerosene Hadley engine, named after a character in Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt.

The company is working on a larger 35,000 pound-thrust Ripley engine that also uses liquid-oxygen and kerosene as propellant. The Ripley engine was named after the character played by Sigourney Weaver in the Alien film series.

A 50,000-pound liquid hydrogen engine called Samus, after a character in the Nintendo video game series Metroid, was designed for medium-sized launchers but the company is shelving that engine and working on other products, said Joe Laurienti, founder and CEO of Ursa Major.

“That was some early government work that we did. Samus is still a notional product but we think that it’s going to be leapfrogged by some other products,” said Laurienti, who previously worked as a propulsion engineer at SpaceX and Blue Origin. 

“Hopefully we can internally fund the next-generation program for for bigger launchers,” he said. 

Roper supports the idea of transitioning to larger engines. 

“I think medium launch is going to be an emerging market that will grow,” he said. “As the large launch providers focus on heavy lift for getting to the moon and Mars, I think that there will be a potential to break into medium launch.” 

Small satellite launchers like Rocket Lab and Relativity Space recently announced plans to introduce larger vehicles. These companies make their own engines. 

Blaine Pellicore, Ursa Major’s vice president of defense, said the medium-class launch market is just starting to take shape and is “ripe for disruption” both in the commercial and national security markets. 

To fund its operations and research, the company has raised $40 million in private funds but is also looking to win government contracts to increase its cash flow. Pellicore said Ursa Major so far has won six Air Force small business innovation research contracts. The goal is to compete for much larger “strategic financing” contracts where the Air Force co-invests in projects and government awards are matched by venture capital. 

Roper is one of several former government officials who advise Ursa Major. Others include former secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, former undersecretary of defense Michele Flournoy, and former NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

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