Pit stops in the space race
SpaceX could have cornered this market a decade ago.
Its first rocket, the Falcon 1, was designed to lift about 1,500 pounds. But after just two successful launches, SpaceX abandoned it, focusing on the much larger Falcon 9 to serve NASA’s needs to carry cargo and, eventually, astronauts to the International Space Station.
Jim Cantrell, one of the first employees of SpaceX, did not understand that decision and left the company. In 2015, he started Vector Launch, Inc., with headquarters in Tucson. Its goal is to make the Model T of rockets — small, cheap, mass-produced.
Vector claims that it can send its rockets into orbit from almost any place it can set up its mobile launch platform, which is basically a heavily modified trailer. That trailer was inspired by Mr. Cantrell’s hobby, auto racing, and many of the companies’ employees come from the racing world, too.
The company is still aiming to meet its goal of getting the first of its Vector-R rockets to orbit this year, but Mr. Cantrell admitted that the schedule might slip again, into early 2019. The flight termination system — the piece of hardware that disables the rocket if anything goes wrong — is late in arriving.
“There are a lot of little things,” Mr. Cantrell said. “It drives you crazy.”
A prototype was planned for suborbital launch from Mojave, Calif., in September, but it encountered a glitch and the test was called off. The crew put the rocket in a racecar trailer and drove it to Vector’s testing site at Pinal Airpark, a small airport a half-hour outside of Tucson that is surrounded 350 acres of shrubby desert.