The Tucson-based microsatellite launch company Vector is looking to team up with a Florida satellite technology company to launch payloads from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The fast-growing company, which plans its first orbital flight in mid-2018, said it’s exploring an arrangement with Harris Corp. to set up commercial launch operations of its Vector-R launch vehicle at Harris Spaceport Systems at Vandenberg, which is near the coast in Santa Barbara County.
Initially, Vector will demonstrate a full-scale prototype of its two-stage Vector-R rocket and its mobile transporter-erector-launcher at Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 8, the company said.
Harris Spaceport Systems, part of the Florida-based multibillion-dollar defense and information technology provider Harris Corp., has operated the launch complex under a federal launch site operator’s license it has had since 1996. The site was used to launch Orbital ATK’s Minotaur rockets in the 2000s.
Other launch sites at Vandenberg have been used to launch Delta and Altas rockets and most recently, commercial space provider SpaceX’s Falcon launch vehicles.
The Harris site is just the latest proposed launch site for Vector, which eventually plans hundreds of small-satellite launches from five sites, said Jim Cantrell, Vector’s CEO and co-founder.
Vector has demonstrated its mobile launch system — which Cantrell says allows a rocket to be set up and launched within three hours — with a technical showcase at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast.
The company conducted a flight with a commercial payload in August from Spaceport Camden in Georgia, and is planning some launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida and possibly Kodiak Island, Alaska, Cantrell said.
“We need as many launch sites as we can possibly get, because we’re looking to launches of these every year,” he said.
The company plans a suborbital test flight in January from a site in the Mojave Desert and remains on track for its first orbital flight using its Vector Block 1 rocket, in a flight sponsored by NASA from the Wallops facility in July 2018, Cantrell said.
Vector plans four orbital launches in 2018, ramping up to 25 in 2019 and 100 in 2019, eventually building to some 400 launches a year, Cantrell said, citing a continuing backlog of small-satellite launches industrywide.
All that potential business has Vector ramping up its rocket-building operations.
Cantrell said the company is opening a second production facility in Tucson soon, and will produce rockets there and at its original site near downtown.
The company now has about 80 employees but expects to have about 200 by mid-2018, Cantrell said, noting that with the company’s engineering team largely in place its major need is for skilled manufacturing workers.
Meanwhile, Vector is finalizing a contractor to build its planned new headquarters and manufacturing plant south of Tucson International Airport, and will keep its other facilities when the airport site opens sometime next year, Cantrell said.
“We’re out raising additional money to accelerate,” he said, noting that he has one potential customer from Denmark who is trying to schedule hundreds of small-sat launches.
While established launch companies like SpaceX launch microsatellites as part of larger payloads, they have long backlogs of small-sat customers, and Vector has little direct competition in its small-launch class so far.
Rocket Lab, a New Zealand-based company, plans to launch two small satellites into orbit in early December, though during a test flight in May its Electron rocket malfunctioned and was destroyed by ground controllers.
“To make more money and to service the sector and become No. 1, we’re going to build them faster and fly them faster, that’s really what we’ve got to do,” said Cantrell, who left SpaceX after helping Elon Musk start the company in 2002.
“We’re ahead of our original schedule, we’re under-budget and we’re going to press on the accelerator to go even faster.”