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A Rocket Veteran Plots a Cheaper Path Back to Space

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 4/14/2021 Justin Bachman
a group of people riding skis on a snowy night: Cantrell has gained Air Force permission to lease a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California © Photographer: Ringo Chiu/AFP Cantrell has gained Air Force permission to lease a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California

(Bloomberg) -- A veteran rocket designer and former SpaceX engineer is forming a small-satellite launch company based on the concept that modern rockets should be produced less like custom-made vehicles and more like automobiles and airplanes.

Phantom Space Corp., founded by Jim Cantrell, one of SpaceX’s first employees and previously an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, aims to build and launch hundreds of rockets to lift into orbit an expected flood of smaller satellites in need of quick and cheap access to space. 

At $4 million per launch, Phantom says its transport will cost anywhere from $500,000 to $6 million less than what larger payload delivery spacecraft now charge for small satellites.

Phantom plans to buy and license existing components as much as possible, a radical departure from existing space launch production in which companies such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Rocket Lab USA Inc. and Virgin Orbit LLC custom produce nearly all their parts in-house. In Cantrell’s view, most rockets remain too bespoke in their largely handcrafted assembly and, thus, unnecessarily expensive.

“We want to be the Henry Ford of the rocket business and do what he did with the auto business,” Cantrell, 55, said in a Zoom conversation with Bloomberg News to discuss the company and its first rocket, Daytona-E.

Phantom Space planned to announce Wednesday it has raised $5 million in seed funding to further work on its initial rocket. Phantom will begin a new $35 million round later this month, followed by a $100 million round next year, Cantrell said. It also has gained Air Force permission to lease a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and is also working to obtain the right to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“A lot of [launch] companies have tried to reinvent the wheel,” said Richard Chenel, founder and managing partner of Chenel Capital, which is leading Phantom’s fundraising efforts. “They start at A and try to develop all the way to Z,” which leads to expense and schedule delays.

Cantrell, a race car enthusiast, has named the rocket after one of his favorite racetracks. The Daytona is designed to perform much like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, with landing legs and a guidance system to return to a land-based landing pad. It will be able to carry as much as 450 kilograms (992 pounds) to orbit.  If all goes according to plan, the Daytona will be followed in about four years by the larger Laguna Seca, also named after a race track.

Cantrell said that pioneering private rocket makers over the past two decades, such as SpaceX founder Elon Musk, had little choice but to integrate vertically because the industry was then dominated by government-funded behemoths and proprietary technologies.

“You would lock yourself into the military-industrial cost paradigm if you were buying from the existing supply chain,” he said. “Fast forward 21 years and all the capital investment that’s been made in the space business has created a commercial supply chain for smaller rockets.”

To tap into that supply, Phantom is turning to a Colorado-based company, Ursa Major Technologies, which designs and builds rocket engines. The Daytona’s Hadley engines will be fueled by liquid oxygen and highly refined kerosene, called RP-1. Not building a rocket engine “cuts five years and $50 million off our development cycle,” Cantrell said.

For the Daytona’s avionics and guidance system, Phantom is licensing a design developed by NASA’s Ames Research Center for small-rocket uses. Batteries for the rocket will come from a commercial battery maker.

Phantom Space’s internal work will consist of building valves, the rocket’s structures and its stage-separation system. “So there’s plenty to do,” Cantrell said, but the off-the-shelf approach “completely changes the cost and time” schedule for a completed rocket set for its first test flight in early 2023.

Even if Phantom Space masters techniques required to yield hundreds of rockets per year, the business of how to launch them could prove nettlesome. Though the U.S. has streamlined launch-license requirements, capacity could become a bottleneck. Phantom will probably “have to be in the range business,”  Cantrell said, meaning it will likely need to develop its own launch sites as SpaceX has done in Texas.

Cantrell has had a storied career in the space industry, working as an engineer on Mars rover technology at JPL and helping to advance solar-propulsion technology for a “light sail” the Planetary Society has flown in space.

He’s also experienced his share of setbacks. He was a founding member of Moon Express, a company which tried unsuccessfully to land on the moon. And a previous attempt to start a rocket launch company, Vector Launch Inc., ended in a December 2019 bankruptcy. 

Beyond launches, Phantom plans to eventually build small satellites and Cantrell said the company will launch its own constellation to allow for space-based communications and data relay, bypassing the need for ground stations.

Cantrell said his motivation for his latest space venture isn’t about getting rich. “I’m not doing this to buy the Lamborghini,” he said.

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