On a deserted airplane runway in Long Island, New York, sit a handful of 10-foot-tall shipping containers filled with pressurized tanks, cables, and machinery. Most of the time, the area is still, but every few days here, a siren will sound over a loud speaker and an announcer will caution people to clear off. Then the roar of a rocket engine fills the air.
This is the engine test site for a fledgling rocket startup called Launcher. Based out of Brooklyn, New York, the company was formed in March 2017 by Max Haot, an internet entrepreneur who created the video streaming company Livestream. Haot sold Livestream to Vimeo last year and is now focused solely on getting Launcher off the ground. He says he’s always been interested in space, but he was really inspired to break into the industry when he first saw SpaceX’s website a decade ago.
“I was like, first, how is the government allowing this guy to build missiles? And secondly, how is this possible?” says Haot. He adds: “At that time it really blew my mind. I was like... I have to switch over to space. I want to be part of doing anything I can to contribute to space exploration. I want to spend the rest of my career doing it.”
Launcher has different aspirations than SpaceX. The company is hoping to capitalize on the small satellite revolution, by building a rocket over the next 10 years that is focused solely on sending tiny payloads to orbit. Launcher’s goal is to create a four-engine rocket that rises 65 feet high — about the height of a six-story building. And it should be able to put 662 pounds of cargo into low Earth orbit. That’s room for hundreds of CubeSats — standardized small satellites that can weigh as little as 10 pounds. Launcher hopes to sell flights of the vehicle for less than $10 million a mission.
Launcher isn’t the only one with this business plan. Other companies have popped up recently with the same goal of launching small satellites. The US startup Rocket Lab has its own private launch site in New Zealand, where it launches its Electron rocket — a vehicle capable of getting between 330 and 500 pounds into low Earth orbit. Another company, called Vector, is working on two different small rockets — one that can launch up to 145 pounds and another that can launch up to 350 pounds.
Developing a small rocket is also a bit more realistic than creating a big, powerful one like the Falcon 9, says Haot. “So it’s small, because it is the biggest we think we can develop and also because we know there is market demand.”
The company is just at the beginning, Haot says, and it’s possible Launcher could build a smaller rocket — or a bigger one — later on. It depends on what kind of satellites need launching in the years ahead. Haot hopes to eventually break into the business of launching internet satellites. SpaceX and other companies like OneWeb have proposed sending thousands of satellites into low orbits around Earth, where they can provide global internet coverage by beaming down broadband services to the ground. Haot says Launcher is interested in sending those types of satellites into space, and the company may adjust the capabilities of its rocket depending on how big those probes turn out to be. Perhaps instead of four engines, the rocket might have nine, Haot says.
That’s all a long way off, though. So far, Launcher has raised $2.3 million in funding, with a goal of raising another $10 million by the end of 2020. The team is aiming to conduct its first test flights in 2023 or 2024. And then the first commercial flights should begin in 2026.
The Launcher team is made up of just four full-time employees, along with a few part-time consultants. And when they’re not designing at their offices at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the team members are out at the Long Island test site, firing the 3D-printed engine that they’ve created. Currently, Launcher is doing numerous test fires of an engine that’s one-fortieth the scale of the one the company hopes to fly. Haot says that the plan is to fire a full-scale engine by the end of 2020.
Before launching the company, Haot, who lives on Long Island, thought he’d need to move his family out closer to the West Coast, perhaps to Mojave or the Los Angeles area where other rocket companies are based. “Then I started to think, what if we could do it in New York?” he said. After searching around, he found a hardly used airstrip, where the closest building is a mile away. The site was originally used by defense contractor Northrop Grumman to build F-14 Tomcat fighter jets. And just 20 miles away from the strip, Grumman once built all of NASA’s lunar landers, including the one that took Neil Armstrong to the surface of the Moon.
“There is a history of aerospace here that unfortunately went away, and there are a lot of families and a lot of people that want to work on propulsion and want to work in aerospace here,” says Haot. He notes that even though Launcher has done very little publicity, he gets resumes every week from new graduates that want to break into aerospace.
We accepted an invitation to watch a Launcher engine test in action, and it was a very memorable experience. Check out what it was like in the video above.