German startup, Rocket Factory Augsburg launching with Ukrainian technology – but all is not as it seems

30th Mar 2021
Rocket Factory Augsburg

After a recent article about the plans of Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) was published, the Golem.de site was asked for an interview by the consultancy, Semanticom. The company handles RFA’s public relations and also represents clients such as Deutsche Telekom, Evonik among others.

However, Golem instead asked Rocket Factory Augsburg to comment on how “the technical challenges of developing the rocket engine and the rocket itself can be overcome within the next 22 months, and what means will be used to achieve the unusually low cost point.”

The statement reveals that the booster pump and other unnamed parts of the Rocket Factory’s engine technology will be supplied by Ukraine’s Yuzhmash Group. This will enable the rapid development of a closed fuel cycle engine. The usual development time for such an engine could easily be 10 years.

This raises a huge question over whether the transfer of technology from Ukraine to Germany satisfies the international legal position. Particularly as Ukraine have historically shown themselves to be very protective of their rocket technology and the international community are also very strict over the movement of any such technology that could potentially have a military application.

Yuzhmash has been part of European spaceflight for a long time

From the statements, it can be deduced that the imported parts are elements of the RD-809K engine or the entire Rocket Factory’s engine itself. A variant of the RD-809 has also been traded as a possible upper stage engine for the American Antares rocket. The structures and propulsion tanks of the first Antares stage are also manufactured and supplied by Yuzhmash. The engine was developed for the planned Ukrainian Mayak rocket, which has not yet found an investor.

Now that the origin of the Rocket Factory’s engine has been clarified, a launch date in 2022 seems more credible than before. Whether a first rocket can still be launched in 2022 depends on how long the development work on the larger version of the RFA One will be going on. Still, the price of the rocket remains puzzling. At €3 million per launch and a payload of 1200kg into a 500km high orbit, the price is about a quarter of the competition.

The Origin of Rocket Factory’s Engines Low Price Remains Unclear

RFA explains the price reduction by 3D printing and mass production as in car manufacturing. But almost all competitor manufacturers, including Rocket Lab, also use 3D printing and plan on the same launch frequency of about 50 rockets per year. Astra Space is even talking about 300 rockets per year. So the cost savings apply to all of them and cannot explain any price difference. SpaceX has also popularised the use of some components from companies outside the space industry, and this is therefore no longer a unique selling point.

Another factor in the cost reduction is supposed to be the reusability of the first rocket stage. But this is also carried out by other companies and is therefore not a sufficient measure to explain the low launch price. 

Even after the statement, there is no plausible reason why the RFA Engine One can be offered at only a quarter of the usual market price. One possible explanation would be a cross-subsidisation of the launch costs by OHB. RFA belongs to the German space company OHB and its subsidiary MT Aerospace (MTA). OHB holds 53 percent of the shares in RFA. The Rocket Factory Augsburg has access to the entire expertise of OHB and MTA, which build satellites as well as rocket stages for the Ariane rockets.

With subsidies for its own rockets, the satellite manufacturer could ensure reliable launch capabilities for its own satellites through regular rocket production. In addition, the company plans to convert the third rocket stage directly into a satellite and offer it to other customers, as Rocket Lab is already doing with its Rocket Factory’s engine.

Hopefully time will provide answers to the questions that surround the Rocket Factory Augsburg technology in mystery. But one thing for now is very clear and that is that RFA are conducting a strategy of pricing others out of the market and somebody is subsidising it.

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