After spending four years in key engineering roles at SpaceX
, Harry O'Hanley '03 has founded ABL Space Systems
, a startup that will develop launch vehicles to send small satellites into orbit.
According to O'Hanley, who spoke with science journalist Mac King on his Another Think Coming
podcast, ABL aims to serve the increasing number of private companies whose business depends on launching Earth-orbiting satellites cheaply, frequently, and reliably, particularly in two markets: communications and remote imaging and sensing. "There's an incredible number of companies who want to launch this technology into space," says O'Hanley. These new companies are doing everything from monitoring wildfires to connecting global broadband networks; and O'Hanley wants his launch vehicle to be the one to enable these ventures to launch their small satellites when and where they need.
To be sure, O'Hanley and his company face lots of competition in the rocket business: one recent estimate identified more than 30 satellite-launching companies with vehicles in various stages of development around the world. Yet many of these are pursing novel and unproven technologies, such as space "elevators," and, explains O'Hanley, that's not the way he believes a launch vehicle company like ABL can survive as a business. "By now, making launch vehicles is a mature science," he says. "The technology to build this type of rocket has been around for some time. Why reinvent the wheel?"
Reliable, 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 penciled in 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."
"What will really change the space game," O'Hanley continues, "is when people treat us like any other segment of the manufacturing economy, like the automotive industry, where you have an established network of experienced suppliers providing parts to a larger manufacturer, who integrates everything into a final product." Ultimately, O'Hanley argues, launch vehicles need to be more like 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's goals are a far cry from those of Elon Musk's SpaceX, where O'Hanley was recruited as an engineer shortly after graduating from MIT with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Nuclear Engineering. The visionary Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the stated goal of revolutionizing space technology to allow people to live on other planets. While at the company, O'Hanley led the development of the grid fin system that enables precision landing of the Falcon 9, the world's first reusable rocket. As the responsible engineer for Stage 1 propulsion systems, he was trusted by peers and leadership to make critical go/no-go calls on launch day. O'Hanley most recently managed a 30-person team of integration engineers and test technicians, putting in place new processes to enable high-rate vehicle production.
"SpaceX was an incredible place to start my career," admits O'Hanley. "There's really nowhere else I could have done the things I got to do at 25 years old, just out of college. But I saw that there was this growing market for small launch vehicles that could carry commercial satellites into orbit, and I wanted to branch out." Now that he's at the helm of his own startup, working with fellow SpaceX engineering alum Darin Van Pelt,
O'Hanley is surprised to have been deluged with offers of help. "Everyone wants our launch vehicle to succeed."
Admittedly, creating the "dump truck of rockets," as O'Hanley calls it, may not sound like an attractive goal to young engineers, who seem to gravitate to whatever is sleek and cool. But, though it may not be sexy, ABL's vision for cheaper, more reliable launch vehicles is undeniably important, and may even shape the future.