Monday, March 6, 2023

The Small Launch Industry - Even More Brutal Than You Thought

That's the provocative title that Eric Berger at Ars Technica used to summarize a pre-publication review of a new book.  Well, not exactly the title he used but the gist of it.  It opens with a summary quote from the book, When the Heavens Went on Sale, by Ashlee Vance scheduled to be released on May 9th by Harper Collins.  

Vance is the author of an insightful biography of Elon Musk that was published in 2015. Since then, the Silicon Valley journalist has traveled around the world, embedded with other would-be space entrepreneurs. In this book, he profiled four companies: Planet, Rocket Lab, Astra, and Firefly. And when I say "profiled," I mean he spent weeks—and in some cases months—living and visiting with the founders and their employees, with unparalleled access to their operations. He's got the goods.

Eric Berger himself is the author of another book focused on SpaceX called, "Liftoff:  Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX" so, to me, he has some credibility summarizing other authors in the same field.  

The book is loosely framed around a basic idea: About 15 years ago, Musk and SpaceX proved that a private company could develop its own liquid-fueled rocket, setting off a wave of new investment in the industry. Venture capitalists were chasing the next Musk and SpaceX as the company's valuation soared above $100 billion. Satellite company Planet, along with launch startups Rocket Lab, Astra, and Firefly, are some of these companies seeking to woo investors. Vance adds another layer by telling the story of Pete Worden, a maverick scientist and long-time leader of NASA's Ames Research Center in California, who is a godfather of sorts for some of these companies.

The majority of the article is peeks at the book, either direct quotes or distillations from it.  The opening of the article quotes two men who were working for Astra in 2018.  They talk honestly about how they don't understand why the great interest, except that venture capital investors think space is cool and could be the "next big thing" so they don't want to miss it.  At the time, Astra was working on their platform called Rocket 3.0, and while they were years away from making a successful test flight, the company talked about launching daily.  One them says, “Even with us, the whole goal is for us to launch daily. I'm either going to be dead in the ground before that happens or I'll be walking down the street with money falling out of my pockets and won't care that they're launching daily.”  

As Berger says, spoiler alert.  They not only aren't launching daily, they haven't made orbit in years.  They made orbit twice out of seven attempts and in August of '22 decided to toss the Rocket 3.3 platform and focus on a different platform.  Rocket 4.0.

Peter Beck, the chief executive of Rocket Lab, comes off tremendously well.  To start a rocket company in a country that has no aerospace industry to speak of takes an exceptional person, and he clearly comes across as a genius.  Beck has a reputation for being a demanding and exacting boss, but to get to the top from nowhere, this could be seen as a necessary trait. 

By contrast, if Rocket Lab is the tightest ship in the shipping business, Astra might be the loosest.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Astra's CEO, Chris Kemp, doesn't come across as well as Peter Beck.  Kemp is clearly a smart guy with a talent for raising money, but he has a reputation for playing fast and loose with facts, putting the best possible spin on things.  More PR agent than CEO, although CEOs are part of the PR face of the company.  The book details what seems to be a genuine rivalry between the two CEOs.  

Perhaps the most peculiar part of the story is Firefly, a company that went bankrupt but was then saved by Ukrainian businessman Max Polyakov (the company was founded by aerospace engineer Tom Markusic).

Neither man liked one another, but both needed the other. Markusic needed Polyakov's money to keep his rocket dreams alive, and Polyakov needed Firefly to enact his dreams of becoming a space billionaire. The pairing ultimately blew up like a rocket, and Vance was on hand for some of these dramatic fireworks. One of them occurred in August 2020 on a drunken private jet flight from California to Austin, Texas:

The two men were telling each other what they really thought. Polyakov complained about all the money he'd lost. Markusic complained about what a pain in the ass Polyakov was. Polyakov accused Markusic of stringing him along with an endless series of false promises. "I'm good at promising things," Markusic said as the Oban washed away all deference.

(Oban is a brand of single malt scotch.  I'd give a link but they annoyed me with too many things to fill in before I could get to their home page.)

Astra's "World's Most Interesting Rocket Launch Abort" in August of '21, with the Rocket going sideways several seconds.

An idea I came across at some point that left an impression is that in a photo like that one, where the rocket is lifting on pillars of fire, just think of that as money being burned.


  1. What? No introspective article about what bupkis is behind Blue Origin?

    All of it sounds interesting. Space is the new internet tech handwavium. Will be interesting to see who is still standing in a year, in 5 years, in 10 years.

  2. Astra *has* been fun to watch but is a Big Disappointment. Likewise Bigelow Aerospace. In the private rocket business, ya gotta be good, fast, and ultimately really lucky to make any headway. Right place, right amount of cash, right amount of knowledge either in yourself or in a good team, and somebody to lead the Company when things get tough - and they always will - and see it through to success.

    SpaceX. Rocket Labs. Blue Origin(??). Astra (not looking good). Relativity Space (stay tuned...). ULA (on the way out?). Lots and lots and lots of new kids pushing the stodgy old companies out of the way. What a time to be alive!!

    1. Bigelow was on the cusp of big things. Their inflatable structures worked, worked well, and were the best new thing for new space habitats and crew quarters for interplanetary missions.

      Fortunately Sierra Nevada has taken the inflatable space structures concept and is actually doing something with it.

    2. Relativity's Terran-1 is still listed as the next launch from the Cape, Wednesday at 1PM Eastern. I think they'll be on YouTube.

      While writing the piece last night, I stopped to watch the Japanese H3 first launch. This is the one that on the first try last month counted down to zero, ignited the liquid-fueled first stage, and then the solids wouldn't light and aborted. Last night, it lifted off, the first few minutes went by the book, but then the second stage ignition apparently never happened. They eventually sent a destruct command, and that's the last I've heard.

      This is Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a big, storied company with lots of launch experience, not to mention cars, and aircraft. I never read what the first problem turned out to be, but two showstoppers on the same rocket? It's a tough business.

  3. A random thing that might interest you. Maybe smart, maybe stupid. Still figuring that out. I used 3d printed plastic clamps to mount a dremel on my lathe for (hopefully) precision grinding.


    1. If you drop by again, I tried to ask you a question on the blog and it never accepted me. Contact me as sigraybeard at gmail dot com with the usual substitutions.

    2. Reply sent. Sorry about the overly aggressive spam filtering.