The small launch industry is brutal--yes, even more than you thought
One of the most honest moments in a new book, When the Heavens Went on Sale, comes during a discussion between two aerospace technicians working at the rocket company Astra in December 2018. On a Sunday, Les Martin and Matt Flanagan were watching football inside an RV parked at Astra's facilities near Oakland, California.
Martin in particular had a lot of experience at launch companies, having worked primarily on test stands for SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Firefly Space, and now Astra. The two were discussing the challenges of the launch industry and musing about how any company ever made money launching rockets.
Martin: The challenge is to get there before you run out of money.
Martin: Because it doesn't take long. I mean, you raise a little money, you can run through it quick. All the money that is being dumped into this is absurd. There's some charlatans in this business for sure. And what's it all for? I don't see the need for all of it. It doesn't make sense. These VCs made their money in software or whatever. And you know, they just love space. I think a lot of it is it's just cool for them to invest their money in this.
Even with us, the whole goal is for us to launch daily. I'm either going to be dead in the ground before that happens or I'll be walking down the street with money falling out of my pockets and won't care that they're launching daily.
Spoiler alert: Astra is not launching daily. In fact, after five failures in seven orbital launch attempts of its Rocket 3 vehicle, the company binned that design. Martin and Flanagan have both been gone from Astra for nearly three years. In hindsight, the exchange offers a succinct and largely accurate summary of the US commercial launch industry's wild ride during the last decade or so. Billions have been invested. We have heard wildly optimistic predictions for launch cadences--such as Astra's preposterous goal of launching daily. Behind it all has been a crap-ton of hard work, sacrifice, and effort, with relatively little to show for it.
Such is the story told 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 around 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 with the founders and their employees, with unparalleled access to their operations. He's got the goods.
Tales of rocket startups
I can highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in space, especially if you want to know how space startups work behind the public promises and marketing. The book provides real insight into these companies and the people who toil 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-fueled rocket, setting off a wave of new investment in the industry. Venture capitalists were chasing the next Musk and SpaceX as the company's valuation soared above $100 billion. Satellite company Planet, along with launch startups Rocket Lab, Astra, and Firefly, are some of these companies seeking to woo investors. Vance adds another layer by telling the story of Pete Worden, a maverick scientist and long-time leader of NASA's Ames Research Center in California, who is a godfather of sorts for 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 hilarious stories here, with a lot of meat on the bone.