Dozens of small satellite launch startups have entered the market, aiming to make launching technology more affordable and reliable.
But while the last two years haven’t been without challenges, Monday’s “Smallsat Launch Services” session at SATELLITE 2022 — featuring speakers from Virgin Orbit, Firefly Space Transport Services (STS), Astra, Relativity Space, and Spaceflight — showcased positive developments, with speakers highlighting their biggest feats and most ambitious goals.
“We’ve flown an entire eclectic mix of satellites… and we’ll be launching out of the U.K. for the Queen’s 75th Jubilee,” said Jim Simpson, chief strategy officer of Virgin Orbit.
Jason Mello, president of Firefly Space Transport Services (STS) noted that his company is focused on multiple partnerships and launches in 2022. The company recently told Via Satellite it is currently in the process of building its Blue Ghost lunar lander for a NASA mission landing on the Moon in 2023, and that’s just the beginning. “To be part of that with NASA to go back to the moon is exciting.”
Martin Attiq, chief business officer of Astra, told attendees that improving time to market is one of his organization’s biggest priorities in 2022. Astra recently delivered its first customer payloads to orbit.
“It doesn’t matter what any of us think… it matters what customers want,” said Attiq. “They want an affordable, frequent, reliable launch system. We believe if we provide great access to space which is affordable and efficient [then] we can improve life on Earth. The key to getting free access to space is dramatically reducing the costs, and we think we can do that through scale and our goal is to launch every day. We’re still quite a bit away from launching every day, but you can see the progress.”
Josh Brost, vice president of Business Development for Relativity Space, highlighted his company’s focus on leveraging 3D printing technologies to improve time to market and tighten the supply chain. The approach is central to the organization’s mission to using 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and autonomous robotics to reduce touch points and lead times, simplify the supply chain, and increase overall system reliability.
“If customers want something affordable, reliable … we see 3D printing as the technology that makes that possible,” said Brost. “It unlocks the ability to do that on the rocket and do that over time.”
James Antifaev, director of New and Emerging Markets for Spaceflight, said that he was most excited about the success of the professional colleagues he shared the stage with — which, he noted, have partnerships with Spaceflight — as well as Spaceflight’s orbital transfer program.
Moderator Karina Perez Molina, co-founder of the Zed Factor Fellowship and manager of Unmanned and Emerging Aviation Technologies for Aerospace Industries Association, also asked panelists how they weathered the early stages of the pandemic.
Antifaev said that some of the uncertainties were hard on him and others, 2020 and 2021 came back strong. “A lot of the fear that existed in the beginning turned out not to be necessary,” he said.
Martin of Astra added, “Our company went public, Virgin Orbit went public, and what that means is that funding space continues to be [in] phenomenal demand.”
Simpson acknowledged that was challenging, trying to operate with a smaller workforce at times, but said that progress over the last four years, including improvements in integrated circuitry, electrically steered antennas, and manufacturing have offset some of these challenges.
“You’re seeing things that allow us to do things we’ve never done before,” he said. “There’s satellites the size of a grilled cheese sandwich that would have been six metric tons before.”
Brost echoed his peers in highlighting the supply chain challenges that emerged from the pandemic yet continue to challenge the industry.
“I think at the beginning of the pandemic we all took a pause and weren’t sure what it would mean,” he said. “But at Relativity we were able to have our unique manufacturing process that allowed us to build hardware with just a few people because it’s highly automated. This helped us also understand the limitations of automation. On the business side it’s exciting to see money throwing into launch capabilities. But also the funding of satellites is really unprecedented, it’s doubling every year.”
Jason Mello said that being vertically integrated has improved operations, by enabling engineers and operators side by side. “From the supply chain there are some things where we have to look at long lead [times], but having vertical interaction and scalability is key,” he said.
Yet in the midst of all the growth and excitement, all speakers agreed that finding the right talent has gotten harder.
“The competition from rocket-specific talent is very strong,” said Brost. “We’re hiring software engineers from companies like Google, Apple, people from the automotive industry that have expertise. You have to get very broad when you ask for talent. Ultimately our company will rise or fall based on the talent we have. Now candidates who come in will say ‘I have seven other companies giving me offers — why is your company better?’”
However, great talent brings other great talent, Attiq added, noting recent hires from Google, IBM, and other large, well-known organizations. “Like Josh, we hired great talent from other industry verticals.”
Mello said that an emphasis on “making everyone feel like family” has helped his company to attract top talent. “They are excited about space and being part of a small company.’
Simpson said that Virgin Orbit’s association with Sir Richard Branson is just one factor that makes them unique. “If you’re not providing [workers] with a dynamic, growing culture,” he said, “you’re not going to be able to maintain them.” VS