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In today’s newsletter:
🚀 Propulsion funding
🚁 There and back again
🔁 People on the move

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New Players in Propulsion

Image: Firehawk Aerospace

A sudden rush of capital is flowing into a sector that, until recently, seemed stagnant: independent propulsion providers. Last week, Firehawk Aerospace, Adranos, and X-Bow Systems, each horizontally integrated propulsion systems developers, announced Series A rounds totaling at least $47M.

Firehawk Aerospace

Last week, Firehawk announced that it had received a Series A investment from Raytheon. The two companies are partnering on R&D for a hybrid engine for missile propulsion.

  • The company is building custom rocket engines that are ready to ship within 4-6 months. Engines are made using only 20 components, and Firehawk claims its product costs only a fifth of comparable engines. The startup lowers fuel production costs by 3D-printing its solid fuel.

“There needs to be more competition” in propulsion, Firehawk CEO Will Edwards told Payload. “The propulsion industry has seen rapid consolidation over the past few decades, resulting in a lack of innovation. There is plenty of room for competition. In fact, it is necessary.”

Horizontal integration has allowed Firehawk to focus purely on how to build the best engines and allow its customers to innovate on the rest. “Let us do what we do best, you do what you do best, and we can create a much more efficient industry,” Edwards said.

Adranos

The solid rocket engine manufacturer closed a $20M Series A last week from investors including Impala Asset Management LLC, Explorer1 Fund, Elevate Ventures, and Specific Impulse Capital. Adranos’s differentiator is a high-performance proprietary aluminum-lithium alloy fuel called ALITEC. 

“The U.S. government views the limited number of firms in the energetics space as a weakness, and our entry will add further resiliency and capability that our nation can rely on,” Adranos VP of space systems Michael Grasso told SpaceNews.

X-Bow Systems

X-Bow Systems, yet another solid rocket engine manufacturer, raised a $27M Series A last week led by Crosslink Capital and Razor’s Edge Ventures. X-Bow offers a solid rocket engine called Ballesta that it says is the “first large-diameter scale motor designed and tested by a non-legacy systems integrator supplier in over 30 years.” 

State of the DIB

The defense industrial base (DIB) has drastically consolidated over the last few decades. A February Pentagon report recalled how mergers and roll-ups became commonplace among satellite suppliers and propulsion providers. 

  • By 2020, the field of solid rocket motor makers had shrunk to just two providers: Aerojet Rocketdyne and Northrop Grumman (which acquired the capability with Orbital ATK). 
  • Aerojet was nearly acquired by Lockheed Martin before the FTC stepped in to block the deal earlier this year, citing worries that there would not be enough domestic competition if the market lost access to Aerojet engines. 

Takeway: As Ursa Major CEO Joe Laurienti told Payload last month, lacking competition has produced a lapse of innovation. But now there are new launch and hypersonic motor kids on the block—and they’re angling to kickstart competition in the independent propulsion sector. 

Read/share online.


James Bond Could Never 

Rocket Lab (NASDAQ:RKLB) yesterday launched its 26th Electron mission and deployed customers’ 34 satellites to a sun-synchronous orbit. Most notably, the “There and Back Again” mission had a secondary goal of plucking the returning Electron booster from the skies with a helicopter. 

The company’s Sikorsky S-92 did end up catching Electron, but offloaded the booster into the Pacific moments later. The S-92’s pilots “noticed different load characteristics than we’ve experienced in testing,” Rocket Lab’s Murielle Baker said on a livestream. 

  • After splashdown, the company loaded the booster onto a ship for transport back to the factory. 
  • Rocket Lab will continue to attempt mid-air recoveries in service of its long-term goals of reusability and rocket reflights. 

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck added via tweet: “Incredible catch by the recovery team, can’t begin to explain how hard that catch was and that the pilots got it. They did release it after hook up as they were not happy with the way it was flying, but no big deal, the rocket splashed down safely and the ship is loading it now.”

“The really tricky thing is not just re-entering, of course, but re-entering and targeting the rendezvous point with the helicopter,” Beck told Payload back in April. “We’re entering the Earth’s atmosphere at eight times the speed of sound on a ballistic trajectory, so it’s not trivial.” And, he added, that “owning a sweet-a** S-92…That’s a bucket list thing right there.” Editor’s note: agreed. 

Fun fact: Flightradar24 confirmed to Payload that Rocket Lab’s helicopter was the second-most tracked aircraft for a time yesterday. 

And finally…Watch what the recovery looked like from front-row seats.

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In Other News

  • AST SpaceMobile (NASDAQ:ASTS) has received an FCC experimental license to test its BlueWalker 3 satellite. The Midland, TX company is preparing to launch the satellite-to-phone demo spacecraft this summer. 
  • Starlink has ~150,000 daily active users in Ukraine, per digital transformation minister Mykhailo Fedorov.
  • ULA’s IAM employee union has approved the company’s new three-year contract, after several weeks of negotiations.
  • Canada has extended “criminal jurisdiction to the cosmos,” per the Calgary Herald. 
  • Netflix’s belt-tightening has come for Steve Carrell and Space Force, with the streaming site opting not to renew the comedy series for a third season (H/T Deadline). 
  • That decision seems quite alright for real-life Guardians.

On the Move

  • NOAA appointed Richard DalBello the new director of its Office of Space Commerce. DalBello has over 30 years of experience in government and the private sector, and will assume the role on May 9.
  • Redwire (NYSE:RDW) appointed Al Tadros to CTO. Tadros was most recently Redwire’s chief growth officer.
  • Meta Aerospace has hired Todd Harrison as SVP and head of research. Harrison is currently director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS.
  • USAF will soon swear in Frank Calvelli as assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration. Calvelli’s nomination was recently confirmed by the Senate.
  • Southern Launch selected Rob Baker to be its first GM for launch and test.
  • Momentus (NASDAQ: MNTS) hired Charles Chase, Nick Zello, and Gary Bartmann as VPs of engineering, operation, and supply chain, respectively. 
  • Maxar (NYSE:MAXR) promoted Kristin Carringer to director of enterprise communications.
  • AST SpaceMobile (NASDAQ:ASTS) named Sean Wallace as EVP and CFO.
  • Loft Orbital brought on Doug Farren as director of regulatory affairs.
  • The Lone Star Flight Museum inducted former astronaut Dr. Bernard A. Harris, Jr. into the 2022 Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.
  • NASA will enlist planetary geologist Chris Haberle to help with the extended OSIRIS-REx mission, which will orbit asteroid Apophis.

The View from Space

Image: NASA/STScI

JWST’s instruments are fully focused up and ready to begin commissioning, NASA announced. The super-powerful space telescope is performing “better than the engineering team’s most optimistic predictions,” per a blog post.

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