Henry Ford in Space: How Phantom Space is Developing a New Launch Model

The Arizona-based aerospace company plans to produce enough rockets to launch 100 missions a year.

We present to your attention a translation of an article by Neil Patel that appeared in the MIT Technology Review on May 26, 2021. The focus is on the Arizona space dream. Former associate of Elon Musk proposes to revise the existing economic models of launches and promises a new round of competition in orbit.

Colorado-based Ursa Major is testing a Hadley model engine that will power its Phantom Daytona rocket.  Photo: Ursa Major
Colorado-based Ursa Major is testing a Hadley model engine that will power its Phantom Daytona rocket. Photo: Ursa Major

Jim Cantrell describes himself as “the intellectual father of the small start-up business.” It’s hard to disagree with him. When Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, Cantrell became the company’s first vice president of business development. His expertise was critical in the development of the Falcon 1, SpaceX’s first rocket.

Cantrell later founded Strategic Space Development (known as StratSpace), which was responsible for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu and demonstrating solar sail technology in space for the American Planetary Society. He was the co-founder and CTO of Moon Express. This company is going to mine resources on the moon one day.

Cantrell is well versed in the dangers of an industry where setbacks are literally explosive. Moon Express has made it to the finals of the Lunar X Prize, Google’s competition for landing a rover on the moon. The competition was later canceled, and the company still hadn’t had time to fly into space, let alone the moon.

The rocket is leaving soon, there are three places left

Cantrell’s focus is now on Phantom Space. In recent years, there has been an explosion in the popularity of small and relatively cheap satellite designs. A multitude of new launch startups are looking to take advantage of the situation and build rockets that can meet the growing demand to launch new payloads into orbit. Phantom Space is one of these startups. As is usually the case with Cantrell, the company tries to succeed by rowing against the tide.

One of the hottest trends in rocketry is massive joint launches. Customers buy vacant seats for their spacecraft on medium or large rockets with a predetermined departure date. As a rule, it is so much cheaper for customers to deliver cargo into space than to order a single launch. Launching a 200-kilogram load into space under SpaceX’s “ride-sharing” program costs $ 1 million (in total, a Falcon 9 rocket can put 22,800 kg into low-earth orbit). On January 21, the company carried out a special joint launch mission and put a record 143 satellites into orbit. SpaceX is performing a similar launch in June. Space company Rocket Lab has long resisted the idea of ​​creating larger rockets, and in March made a surprise turn and unveiled the Neutron rocket, designed to perform joint launches and compete with the Falcon 9.

But Phantom’s “ride-sharing” doesn’t appeal. The company is set to take its place in space by mass-producing small rockets to make hundreds of launches a year. “We want to be Henry Ford in space,” says Cantrell. “And we adhere to the opposite view of how we will develop.” Just as Henry Ford did not reinvent the machine, but the way it was made, Phantom seeks to remake not rockets, but only their production.

How? When SpaceX went live, supply chains for aerospace companies making orbital launches were woven into the US Department of Defense’s financial system. To remain independent, SpaceX decided to build everything on its own, relying on Musk’s fortune and a ton of investment. The company kept afloat, operating at a loss for many years. As a result, the long-term game has paid off.

Lean approach to rocketry

The Phantom founders decided they didn’t need to follow Musk’s lead. Over the past five years, aerospace supply chains have become more flexible and competitive. This means that the Phantom can simply purchase the parts they need, rather than build everything from scratch. The startup buys 3D-printed motors from Colorado-based Ursa Major. The onboard computer design is licensed from NASA and features a BeagleBone Black board. Some distributors sell it for $ 50. Other components, such as batteries and telemetry systems, are found through the missile defense supply chain.

The analogy with Henry Ford is not just a word of mouth, but a role model. Startup co-founder Michael D’Angelo says the auto and rocket business is following a similar growth curve: doubling production translates into economies of scale, as well as greater efficiency and fewer manufacturing errors. Moreover, computers and mobile devices have followed the same path. And he argues that currently aerospace supply chains are mature enough to support the fast production Phantom wants to launch.

The company is currently developing two types of missiles. There is an 18.7-meter Daytona, which is supposed to launch about 450 kilograms of equipment into space. It can be considered a large small-class missile. According to Cantrell, the company’s analysis found this size to be optimal for profitable operations. Then comes the 20.5-meter Laguna, capable of launching a payload of up to 1200 kg. Phantom is developing a version of the Laguna with a reusable first stage booster, like the SpaceX Falcon 9. The vertical landing process will be similar.

Artistic rendering of the Daytona rocket.  Image: Phantom Space
Artistic rendering of the Daytona rocket. Image: Phantom Space

Phantom Space hopes to fill an empty niche in the market. While mass co-launches are relatively cheap, customers have less control over the mission. Such a mission, like a train, follows a fixed route. If you want your satellite to move in a different orbit or trajectory, you will have to install expensive thrusters to steer it there. Otherwise, you will have to change the function of the apparatus and put up with a less favorable orbit, or simply buy a ticket for another mission. And it remains to hope that your companion will fit exactly to all other cargoes with which it is launched – these flights are always fully booked.

Launching a small rocket can be more expensive, but it returns control to the customer. When your mission has specific requirements – such as replacing a certain satellite in a constellation, launching sensitive equipment, or costly technical demonstration – you will probably need a separate flight, not a joint one. “There is definitely interest and demand for these small rocket launches,” says Ryan Martino, a space systems engineer at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Utah.

Cantrell believes his startup will meet demand without hitting the budget. With its distinct approach, he estimates, the company could actually offer a launch for a third of the price of a mass launch model.

Phantom Space’s immediate plans: coexistence with SpaceX

But first, the company must actually go into space. Daytona is slated to make its first space flight in 2023. Typically, the first four launches of a new rocket are 50 percent reliable, Cantrell said. That is, Phantom assumes that at least one of its first four missions will go into orbit. The startup recently leased a launch pad at Vandenberg Base in California from the U.S. Air Force and is now seeking permission to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. These are important steps, the Phantom is really going to make 100 launches a year.

Phantom also wants to build satellites and become a one-stop customer service center. A key side of the business will be Cantrell’s StratSpace, which the startup acquired this week. The company is working on prototypes of satellite constellations for clients and is participating in a commercially funded scientific mission worth $ 1.2 billion. Specific details will not be released for several months. In addition, the team is developing a communications system they call Phantom Cloud. Basically, it is a mesh network that other satellites can use to communicate with each other or with equipment on the planet’s surface. Cantrell calls this “satellite internet in space.”

In fact, Phantom doesn’t have to beat SpaceX and the big rocket manufacturers – just hold out. “As the small start-up market develops, I think more customers will take advantage of this opportunity,” says Martino. “It is unlikely that one method will become dominant and supplant the other.”

Coexistence is okay, Cantrell says. “We acknowledge that SpaceX has superbly designed a large, reusable space transportation system. We believe this is just one of two, or many, fundamentally different economies in the space transportation ecosystem. ” He hopes Phantom will be a pioneer in his field.

Transfer: Alexandra Galyautdinova

Do you think the Phantom Space rocket will take off? At Madrobots, we are of the opinion that another player in orbit is always a plus for the aerospace industry.


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