ABL Space has never launched a rocket, but it just landed a huge contract

ABL’s mobile launch system can be deployed at multiple locations.
Enlarge / ABL’s mobile launch system can be deployed at multiple locations.
ABL Space Systems

A California company that has yet to even attempt a rocket launch has nonetheless inked a major deal with Lockheed Martin for dozens of missions over the next decade.

Under terms of the block-buy agreement between ABL Space Systems and Lockheed, the aerospace giant will purchase “up to” 26 launches through 2026 and as many as 32 additional launches through 2029. If the terms are fulfilled, this would come to 58 launches over the next eight years for ABL Space. In an industry where even a single launch contract often produces a news release, a contract for five dozen launches is unprecedented for a private company.

Officials with ABL Space declined to offer specific financial terms of the agreement. However, ABL said the contract comes with a “significant” minimum commitment beginning in 2022, plus additional paid options in each future year.

“This deal provides significant value to ABL,” Harry O’Hanley, co-founder and chief executive of the company, told Ars. “In terms of our business, the contract provides a consistent source of demand from one of the biggest players in the civil and defense space industries to anchor our manifest through the years ahead.”

The partnership will allow Lockheed, which builds large numbers of satellites for commercial customers, frequent and low-cost access to space. It is perhaps not a surprise that Lockheed selected ABL Space for its small launch needs, as Lockhead was an early investor in the launch company during a seed phase in 2019 and has continued to participate in additional rounds of fundraising. ABL has raised a total of $219 million to date.

“They’re not our largest investor, but they are in the top 10,” said Dan Piemont, co-founder and president of ABL Space, about Lockheed. “I think it’s fair to say the business relationship is a lot more significant than the investment relationship, but we absolutely appreciate having them involved in ABL in both capacities.”

Before ABL Space can make good on this contract, of course, it has to demonstrate that it can reach orbit. The El Segundo, California-based company is developing a rocket called RS1 with the capacity to launch 1.35 metric tons to low Earth orbit. The rocket’s first stage is powered by nine E2 engines, which burn liquid oxygen and kerosene, and each produces 13,000 pounds of thrust. In this sense, the vehicle is something like a miniature Falcon 9 rocket. It has a base price of $12 million per flight.

Originally, the company had hoped to launch during the first half of 2021, but O’Hanley said that “external factors” are still coming together for that first mission. ABL is now targeting the third quarter of this year. The company uses a mobile launch system that can be packed into shipping containers and delivered via tractor trailers. This offers the flexibility to launch from multiple locations, but for now, the RS1’s initial flight will take place from Launch Complex-576E at Vandenberg Air Force Base a couple of hours north of the company’s headquarters.

The company has begun building its first five rockets and wants to conduct three launches this year—and eight or more in 2022. This is an ambitious goal, as several months to a full year have historically passed between the initial test flight of a rocket and subsequent missions.

ABL has developed the RS1 and its production capabilities with rapid growth in mind. O’Hanley said the company can produce a complete RS1 fuel tank assembly in about three weeks, and ABL is developing a high cadence engine test site at Mojave Air & Space Port. This is how it hopes to scale operations to meet the numbers envisioned in the contract with Lockheed.

“We take the scaling challenge seriously and have a clear roadmap,” O’Hanley said.