Tucson Tech: Old Pueblo gets new rocket firm as New Space industry develops

Arizona Daily Star, David Wichner Nov 21, 2020


When Vector Launch abruptly halted its micro-satellite launch operations and filed for bankruptcy in December 2019, it looked like Tucson had lost its only company dedicated to building rockets and launching small sats as part of the “New Space” industry.

Now the Old Pueblo has two, as Vector’s new owners recently announced a restart of operations in Tucson, and Vector’s former CEO has co-founded a new small-rocket space transportation company here.


And there’s more to come, including another local startup looking to launch its first ground-imaging satellite in mid-2021. Last week, the investors who bought Vector’s rocket-launching assets in a bankruptcy auction said the company will restart operations in the company’s former quarters near downtown.


Vector, which was developing small rockets designed to carry micro-satellites into orbit, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and laid off about 150 employees in December, after a major investor pulled its funding.


The new Vector Launch, led by retired Air Force brigadier general and national security expert Rob Spalding, will stay at its original headquarters at 350 S. Toole Ave., under a new lease with Pima County.


Spalding, acting CEO of Vector Launch, said he came to Tucson to close up shop, but an effort by Sun Corridor Inc., convinced the company to stay. Spalding declined to comment for this column, indicating he’ll be talking more about the company’s plans down the road.


NEW “SPACE TRANSPORTATION” FIRM

Meanwhile, Jim Cantrell, co-founder of Vector in 2016, decided to stick around Tucson and has quietly started up Phantom Space, a new company planning to provide micro-satellite launch services, as well as small satellites and propulsion systems.

Cantrell, who was an early member of Elon Musk’s SpaceX team, said he was convinced to start another satellite tech company by Michael D’Angelo, a former colleague at Vector, after the pair figured they could use the many lessons they took from Vector.


The pair co-founded Phantom Space with Michal Prywata, a biotech business executive who is investor and chief strategy officer for Phantom.


Cantrell said Phantom is taking a broader view of the still-evolving New Space industry, which has been driven by the rapid development of tiny satellites for research and communications.

Rather than create a vertically integrated company that builds everything from the ground up, Phantom is using existing technologies — notably including proven, off-the-shelf engines for its launch vehicles — and integrating them into systems to serve its customers.


“We’re a space transportation company,” Cantrell said. “Thinking about the future, we don’t know what the killer app is. One thing we do know is, people have to send their objects into space and you have to move them around, and sometimes bring them back.”

After setting up a small shop on East Speedway, Phantom is in the process of building four launch vehicles and hopes to launch its first orbital flight in about two years, skipping suborbital test flights, Cantrell said.


The company has hired a dozen people, including some former Vector employees, he said.

Phantom has arranged to use rocket engines made by Colorado-based Ursa Major Technologies to power its first rocket, which at about 4 feet in diameter and roughly 50 feet in length is being designed to carry 450 kilograms, or about 1,000 pounds, into orbit, he said.


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