Cantrell’s last focus is Phantom space, one in a sea of new launch startups looking to take advantage of the explosion of smaller and cheaper satellite designs and build races that can meet the growing demand to launch these payloads into orbit. But as with the course with Cantrell, Phantom tries to find success by bathing against the current.
One of the hottest trends in racing now is ride-share launches, where customers purchase space available for their payloads on a medium or large size with a specific departure date. This is usually a cheaper way than single launches for customers to get a payload into space – with the SpaceX sharing program, it costs $ 1 million to launch a payload of 200 kilograms (its Falcon 9 race can take 22,800 kg in total in low Earth orbit). The company launched a mission dedicated to ride-share on January 21, launching into orbit a record 143 satellites. It followed with a similar mission in June. In a surprising move in March, Rocket Lab, which has long resisted the idea of building larger races, unveiled the Neutron for the precise purpose of making ride-share launches and in competition with the SpaceX Falcon 9.
The Ride action isn’t Phantom’s cup of tea. The company wants to establish its space footprint by mass-producing small rockets and launching hundreds a year. “We want to be Henry Henry of space,” Cantrell says. “We have a contrary view of how we develop this.” As Henry Ford did not reinvent the car but the way it was built, Phantom is not out to reinvent the races — only its production.
How? When SpaceX launched, supply chains for aerospace companies entering orbit were intertwined in the U.S. Department of Defense’s financial system. To stay independent of that system, SpaceX decided to build it all itself, relying on Musk’s fortune and a ton of investment to stay afloat for years of losses. It was a long-term gamble that paid off.
But the founders of Phantom decided they didn’t need to follow suit. Even in the last five years alone, aerospace supply chains have become more fluid and competitive, which means Phantom can only buy the specific parts it wants rather than build everything from scratch. Buy 3D printed engines from Ursa Major in Colorado. The concept of the flying computer was licensed by NASA, and uses a BeagleBone Black board which some distributors sell for about $ 50. Other components, such as batteries and telemetry systems, are purchased through the missile defense supply chain.
Henry Ford’s analogy isn’t just an aspiration – it’s a model for the company. Co-founder Michael D’Angelo says automobile and race companies follow similar growth curves: doubling production leads to certain economies of scale even associated with greater efficiency and fewer production errors. Computers and mobile devices have followed a similar path. He argues that supply chains today are mature enough to allow the kind of rapid manufacturing that Phantom wants.
Now, the company pursues two types of races. There is the 18.7-meter-tall Daytona, which should be able to carry about 450 pounds in space. It’s perhaps on the larger end of what might be called the small race class, but according to Cantrell, the company’s analysis estimates that this is an optimal dimension for profitable business. Then there is Laguna, a 20.5-meter-high rocket that can lift payloads up to 1200 kg. Phantom is developing a version of Laguna with a reusable first-stage booster, like a SpaceX Falcon 9 (with a similar vertical landing process).
Phantom hopes to fill a gap in the market. While travel actions are economical, customers have less control over how the mission goes. A ride-share mission, like a train, is on a fixed track. If you want your satellite to go into another orbit or trajectory, you need to install expensive propellers that can carry it there. Otherwise, you will have to redesign its function for the new orbit, tolerate a less favorable orbit, or simply buy a ticket for a different mission. And hopefully better that your satellite can adapt perfectly to all the other payloads with which they travel – these flights are fully booked.
A launch of small races might cost more, but it gives control to the customer. If you have a mission with very specific needs — such as replacing a particular satellite in a constellation, launching sensitive equipment, or managing an expensive technology demo — you probably want a dedicated flight rather than a ride part. “There’s definitely an interest and demand for these small-space launches,” says Ryan Martineau, a space systems engineer at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Utah.
Cantrell thinks Phantom can answer this question without breaking its budget. He estimates that the company’s approach may actually offer launches for a third of the price of the ride-share model.
First, however, society must actually reach space. The goal is for Daytona to make its first space flight in 2023. Classically, says Cantrell, there is a 50% reliability rate for the first four flights of a new rifle. Phantom’s planes assume more or less that at least one of its first four flights will go into orbit. He recently signed a lease from the Air Force for a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and is currently seeking permission to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, as well – important initial steps if 100 launches a year is really the goal.
Phantom also wants to build satellites and become something of a one-stop shop for customers. Their acquisition of Cantrell’s StratSpace this week is supposed to be a key part of this side of the business. The company is working on constellation prototypes for customers and is part of a group developing a $ 1.2 billion commercially funded scientific mission (specific details will not be disclosed for several months). And he worked quietly on a communication network called Phantom Cloud, which is essentially a network that other satellites can use to communicate with each other or with systems on the surface. Cantrell calls it “satellite Internet for space.”
In fact, Phantom doesn’t exactly need to beat SpaceX and the other big race producers – it just needs to keep its own. “As the small launch market matures, I think you’ll see a wider variety of customers taking advantage of this capability,” says Martineau. “I think it’s unlikely that one will become dominant and abandon the other.”
Coexistence is great, says Cantrell: “We recognize that SpaceX has magnificently developed this great reusable space transportation system, but we think it’s just one of at least two – perhaps more – fundamentally different economic systems in the space transportation ecosystem.” . He hopes that he is Phantom who will be a pioneer of the other.