The small launch industry is brutal—well, even more so than you thought—Ars Technica

Enlarge / Astra’s Rocket 3.1 takes off on September 11, 2020. It failed 30 seconds into flight.

Astra/John Kraus

One of the most honest moments in a new book, When heaven came up for salecomes during a discussion between two aerospace engineers working at rocket company Astra in December 2018. One Sunday, Les Martin and Dave Flanagan were watching football inside an RV parked at Astra’s facilities near Oakland, California.

In particular, Martin had a lot of experience with launch companies, having worked primarily on testbeds for SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Firefly Space and now Astra. The two discussed the challenges of the launch industry and pondered how a company has ever made money launching rockets.

Martin: The challenge is to get there before you run out of money.

Flanagan: Right.

Martin: Because it doesn’t take long. I mean, if you collect a little money, you can quickly run through it. All the money being dumped into this is absurd. There are definitely some charlatans in this industry. And what is it all for? I don’t see the need for it all. That does not make sense. These VCs made their money from software or whatever. And you know, they just love space. I think a lot of it is that it’s just cool for them to invest their money in this.

Even with us, the whole goal is that we should launch daily. Either I’ll be dead in the ground before that happens or I’ll be walking down the street with money falling out of my pockets and not caring that they launch daily.

Spoiler alert: Astra doesn’t launch daily. In fact, after five failures in seven orbital launch attempts with their Rocket 3 vehicle, the company scrapped this design. Martin and Flanagan have both been away from Astra for almost three years. In retrospect, the exchange offers a concise and largely accurate summary of the wild ride of the US commercial launch industry over the past decade or so. Billions have been invested. We’ve heard wildly optimistic predictions for launch cadences – such as Astra’s absurd goal of launching daily. Behind it all has been a lot of hard work, sacrifice and effort, with relatively little to show for it.

That’s the story in Ashlee Vance’s fantastic new book, which will be published on May 9. Vance is the author of an insightful biography of Elon Musk that was published in 2015. Since then, the Silicon Valley journalist has traveled the world, embedded with other would-be space entrepreneurs. In this book he profiled four companies: Planet, Rocket Lab, Astra and Firefly. And when I say “profiled,” I mean he spent weeks—and in some cases months—living and visiting the founders and their staff with unparalleled access to their operations. He has the goods.

Tales of rocket launches

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the space, especially if you want to know how startups in the space work behind the public promises and marketing. The book gives a real insight into these companies and the people who work in them.

The book is loosely framed around a basic idea: About 15 years ago, Musk and SpaceX proved that a private company could develop its own liquid rocket, sparking a wave of new investment in the industry. Venture capitalists chased the next Musk and SpaceX as the company’s valuation rose to over $100 billion. Satellite company Planet, along with startups Rocket Lab, Astra and Firefly, are some of these companies looking to court investors. Vance adds another layer by telling the story of Pete Worden, a maverick scientist and longtime head of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, who is something of a godfather to some of these companies.

Planet has a wonderful and impressive backstory, but the beating heart of this book lies in the tales of the three rocket startups where Vance spent most of this time reporting and gathering material. There are good stories, bad stories and funny stories here, with a lot of meat on the bone.

Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, comes off extremely well. Vance does a good job of showing readers how unlikely it is that Beck started a rocket company in New Zealand, where there was no real aerospace industry and no real funding for such a venture. Beck is clearly a genius who has done something amazing with Rocket Lab. He has a reputation for being a demanding and exacting boss, but to rise to the top from nothing, this could be seen as a necessary trait.

Beck emerges as the smartest and most sensible operator in the small launch industry. And it’s hard to argue with his record – a total of 33 Electron launches and a streak of 13 consecutive successes. Rocket Lab is not SpaceX, but it is currently second best in the purely commercial launch sector.

Astra

If Rocket Lab is the tightest ship in the shipping business, Astra might be the loosest. The book chronicles the incredible series of events leading up to the company’s first suborbital launch attempt in July 2018 from Kodiak, Alaska. A handful of engineers and technicians spent desperate months that winter and spring before launching the company’s first rocket. And when it finally did, the rocket rose for about 30 seconds before stopping and reversing course. It fell back to the ground and produced a massive explosion right on top of the launch site.

Astra CEO Chris Kemp said nothing about this launch publicly – Astra was still operating in stealth mode at the time. But he told investors the launch was a success. This is pure Kemp, who is a main character in the book and generally does not come off well. Kemp is clearly a smart guy with a knack for raising money. But he often plays fast and loose with reality and puts the best possible spin on the events. Throughout the episode on Astra, it becomes clear that many of Kemp’s employees don’t buy his shtick that Astra will launch frequently and become profitable through this volume of launches. One of the Astra chapters is titled “Cash on Fire” and it pretty much sums up the Astra experience.

Chris Kemp, founder and CEO of Astra, right, during the 2022 South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
Enlarge / Chris Kemp, founder and CEO of Astra, right, during the 2022 South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images

One of the pleasures of the book is the (one-sided) rivalry between Beck and Kemp. At Astra, Kemp kept telling investors that his company would catch up and surpass Rocket Lab. Beck essentially shook his head at the thought. After another Astra launch failure in September 2020, Beck commented to Vance, “He must have run out of money by now?”

Several months later, Kemp was ebullient as Astra was on the verge of going public—never mind that the company had no cash flow or even a successful launch of its name. “I don’t know what Rocket Lab is doing,” Kemp said. “They’re messing around with their high-performance Ferrari of rockets that they launch at low speeds. They went into orbit a few years ago and still do a few launches a year. As a public company, we now have the full capability to get to daily space operations .”

Vance writes that Beck almost “passed out” after hearing about Astra’s decision to go public. “Call me old fashioned, but is integrity really lost?” he asked.

By now, it is clear to anyone paying attention to the space industry that Astra has a very difficult road ahead of it to become a profitable space company. With its brutal behind-the-scenes insights, this book will do the company no favors.

Firefly

Finally, the last quarter of the book deals with the adventures of Firefly, a company that went bankrupt but was then rescued by Ukrainian businessman Max Polyakov (the company was founded by aerospace engineer Tom Markusic). This part of the book feels tied to the rest of the story, but it’s no less entertaining. For a few years, the Markusic-Polyakov couple was the weirdest and craziest couple in the space industry.

Neither man liked each other, but both needed the other. Markusic needed Polyakov’s money to keep his rocket dreams alive, and Polyakov needed Firefly to live out his dreams of becoming a space billionaire. The pairing ultimately exploded like a rocket, and Vance was ready for some of those dramatic fireworks. One of them occurred in August 2020 on a drunken private jet from California to Austin, Texas:

The two men told each other what they really thought. Polyakov complained about all the money he had lost. Markusic complained about how bad Polyakov’s ass was. Polyakov accused Markusic of framing him with an endless series of false promises. “I’m good at promising things,” Markusic said as Oban washed away all respect.

(Oban is a Scotch whiskey that Polyakov is quite fond of.) A little more than two turbulent years later, neither man is directly involved with Firefly, though Markusic remains as an adviser.

The story of Firefly is a rowdy and berserk ride. Along the way, Vance is partial to Polyakov, taking a sympathetic view of a businessman who made his fortune mainly on dating websites that weren’t exactly overboard. But underneath this, Vance found a thoughtful, passionate, intelligent person who was trying to do right by Ukraine and truly wanted to extend humanity’s reach to the stars.

Perhaps the funniest anecdote in the book is casually thrown in as a footnote. It concerns Polyakov’s purchase of a $7.6 million mansion in Menlo Park, California, and the moment offers insight into the Ukrainian investor’s personality:

Not long after the Polyakovs moved in, Max’s wife, Katya, asked a local Eastern Orthodox priest to come visit so the family could make some religious connections in the area. Max had enjoyed a few drinks beforehand and decided to impress the priest by pressing a button that activated the pool lid. When the lid slid over the pool, Polyakov walked over it and said, “Look! I can walk on water! I’m like Jesus!”

While the partnership between Markusic – clearly not an angel either – and Polyakov flamed out in dramatic fashion, it’s quite remarkable that the company they built is on the cusp of success with new private equity investors, an alpha rocket , which appears to be ready for prime time, and a contract with NASA to build a lunar lander.

Despite the chaos surrounding its formation, Firefly is a damn solid company.

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