After spending four years in key engineering roles at SpaceX
, in 2017 Harry O’Hanley ’03 founded ABL Space Systems
, a startup to develop launch vehicles to send small satellites into orbit. In March 2021, the rocket builder reached a $1.3 billion valuation after finishing a $170 million round of funding from investors, making it a “unicorn” in the industry by passing the $1 billion mark. And in April, ABL made a deal with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin for dozens of missions over the next decade. The company is now among the most valuable in the growing space industry, which is led by SpaceX with a $74 billion valuation.
According to O’Hanley, ABL aims to serve the increasing number of private companies whose business depends on launching Earth-orbiting satellites cheaply, frequently, and reliably. Existing technology is key to O’Hanley’s vision. “We already know how to make rockets,” he says. “There’s a whole ecosystem of partners out there who build sub-assemblies. One makes engines, another makes electronics, and potential customers are busy making more satellites.” With a first launch of its own craft planned for 2021, he says, “We’re focused on building a dirt-simple, reliable vehicle that’s more like a pickup truck than a Formula 1 car.”
ABL’s RS1 rocket is 88 feet tall and is designed to launch as much as 1,350 kg (nearly 1½ tons) of payload to low Earth orbit. The price of each launch is $12 million. That puts RS1 in the middle of the commercial launch market, pitting it against several other companies developing “medium-lift” rockets. In addition to the economical approach of ABL’s rocket development process, the company touts the efficiency of its GS0 deployable ground system. It’s essentially the barebones of a launch facility—the erector, fueling, electrical, control center and more—packed into a few standard-sized shipping containers.
Ultimately, O’Hanley argues, launch vehicles need to be more like those shipping containers: workhorses that are incredibly simple and can take a beating. “Rockets can’t be exotic vehicles that need to be babied and assembled in clean rooms. They have to be able to sit in a warehouse for a few years and, when you turn them on, they still need to work.”
ABL has customers lined up to launch payloads on its first few missions, with contracts from 10 commercial and government customers. The just-announced partnership with Lockheed, which builds large numbers of satellites for commercial customers, will allow the company frequent and low-cost access to space.
ABL is in the final stretch of preparations for its inaugural launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It has begun building its first five rockets and wants to conduct three launches this year—and eight or more in 2022. This is an ambitious goal, as several months to a full year have historically passed between the initial test flight of a rocket and subsequent missions.