OT Interviews: Rocket Factory Augsburg CEO Stefan Tweraser27th Jul 2023
Rocket Factory Augsburg has been in the news lately for a variety of good reasons. RFA completed a 280-second burn of its Helix engine. This engine will be used singly as an upper stage motor, and in groups for first-stage configurations. The company also inked an agreement that lets it plan on using the disused Diamant rocket launch pad at Kourou Space Center. With all this going on, we jumped at the chance to talk with RFA CEO Stefan Tweraser.
OT: Congratulations on RFA’s full-cycle burn! What’s the timeline going forward now? What’s next?
ST: I think that what’s really exciting about this point in time right now is that we have so many milestones already ticked off from our to-do list. There’s only one more to go before we actually launch. And that’s obviously the integrated first stage test, where we have the same trial that we did a couple of weeks ago, just bigger, with nine engines and much more propellant, and a bigger structure.
We’re very excited about this. But we’re not daunted by the challenges because with the integrated stage test of the second stage, we’ve proven that everything works. The structure works, the software works, the engine works, the test procedure works, the start and stop procedures for the engines work. So it’s basically our sprint against time. Can we assemble enough engines, can we qualify them? Can we assemble the first stage? And right now I think we’re well ahead of all of our red lines. So it’s the integrated first stage test and then we’re off to launch.
OT: So in other words, can you get the Lego pieces together within your time frame?
ST: Yeah, the Lego piece reference is quite an interesting one because when we started out with a strategy of where we wanted to go, we quickly recognized two things. And looking back, it’s kind of obvious. But you have to remember it was five years ago and the landscape was very different.
We looked at where there could be, I wouldn’t even say a niche, more kind of a real market because we don’t consider ourselves to be a niche player in the future, but really a global contender. So we said, ‘Where’s the market heading?’ And as crazy as it might sound today, we thought that launching a satellite would be a commodity.
When you look at what SpaceX are doing, they are really pointing in that direction in the US market with just the sheer number of satellites. And they don’t even have to take into account the mega-constellations of the world. Just the sheer number points to the fact that there will be, regardless from which player, launches pretty much every week, numerous launches every week. So if launching a satellite will be a commodity, we said that price leadership is really where we need to be.
And price leadership for a commercial company implies cost leadership, which comes back to your Lego piece reference. We said that there are so many established players in other industries out there that really understand how to manufacture even very complex parts. Why don’t we take advantage of those existing value chains, and try to acquire Lego pieces to a certain extent, try to acquire those expert knowledge pieces that are out there in the automotive industry and other industries and bring them into space. And that’s very much what we’re doing. We attempt to manufacture a rocket engine like a car engine is being built today. In this regard, the Lego piece reference is maybe a bit exaggerated, but it’s really very much where we want to go because we don’t want specialized parts. When we take connectors, we want to take existing connectors that are produced 100,000 times and we kind of optimize them for use in space. But we want to really take existing pieces, existing value chains, existing manufacturing capabilities, existing process know-how, and qualify that for space.
The point is that on the one hand, you want to be as cost efficient as possible. On the other hand, you also need to be as big as possible, because it’s very hard to make a positive business case for a micro launcher.
Just for the sake of clarification, only 2% of the entire weight of the rocket ends up in space. If the rocket gets smaller and smaller and smaller, that 2% is getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And when you add price pressure from global competition, then the business case evaporates very quickly. So, our challenge was not just to be as cost efficient as possible and to avoid excessive qualification costs for space, but also to be as efficient and as big as possible. And that’s where our “Helix” staged-combustion engine comes in. The rocket engine’s manufactured like a car engine, but really as powerful as it gets. Striking that balance between cost leadership on the one hand, and really as high of a payload as possible is, I think, the sweet spot where we really see the future.
ST: For us, the aha moment really was at the very beginning when we said the Goldilocks structure to a certain extent is really cost leadership with sufficient size, cost leadership with the ability to scale because our engine can scale not only in thrust, but it also can scale in terms of the size of the engine cluster. And thus we know that we can build a bigger rocket without too much new engine development. Very early in the process we found out with our algorithms, where the optimization between performance and cost and weight was, stainless steel structures are more suitable for a cost leadership approach than composite structures. So we only have composites for the interstages and the fairings, but the real big structures are made from stainless steel. And back then, again, five years back, everybody said, “You can’t do that. It’s going to be too heavy. That’s going to ruin your business case.” Well, less than half a year later, Elon Musk laid off his entire composite team and is building Starship from stainless steel.
And right now nobody is questioning the legitimacy of that approach. So, I think there have been numerous ‘Aha’ moments where we said, “okay. it looks like this can be done. If we squeeze it a little, it can be done.” And that was great. Then the challenge was how do we speed up development time with that novel approach of building rocket engines like car engines without taking too many risks. To reduce the risk we bought a used turbopump to get to testing the main combustion chamber and other systems as soon as possible. With this data, we were able to develop our own turbopump, which is significantly more powerful. Now, our Helix engine is 100% RFA intellectual property. We own all of the technology on that and are completely independent.
OT: RFA’s footprint is expanding outside of Europe. There’s a partnership with Conflux in in Australia, but also in French Guiana for launch. Do you think that these types of globalization are inherent to the industry these days? Or was it a conscious choice on your part for other reasons? Where were you looking for speed?
ST: Currently, there are more than 150 companies out there who are trying to build solutions for access to space. So it inherently is a global industry. Maybe outside of the very protected markets like China, maybe India. But in India alone there are 160 startups that work on space ideas. So it’s going to be a global market. The reason why we’ve expanded our footprint as early as possible is because we also see that simplicity from a customer point of view will be key.
Nobody wants to ship a satellite across the globe. So having access to as many launchpads as possible, for example, is one of the reasons why we said, okay, we work with the Swedes, we work with SaxaVord, we work with French Guiana, we work with the Australians, because we want to be as close to the customers as possible. Again, look at the sheer number of launches that there will be. You cannot do this just from one launch pad alone, and thus speed, in our go-to-market model, is one of the drivers behind that idea of early globalization.
OT: So you think that the volume of the the launch demand within Europe itself will make it useful for you to have relationships with both Esrange and Saxavord coming up?
ST: It’s going to be the launch range. It’s going to be nationality, it’s going to be the supply chains for satellites, integration timelines and so on. At the end of the day, it’s still very complex, but it will become a commodity. It’s a complex commodity, so you have to be prepared for all those scenarios.
OT: RFA’s recent op-ed called for an overhaul of how ESA does launch, primarily by supporting multiple companies. To extend the model, do you think that if there had been a committed institutional backer behind or anchor client for Virgin Orbit, that they would have survived the failure back in January?
ST: Well, we cannot look inside what happened at Virgin Orbit. But if we take a step back, then the situation that we alluded to in our op ed is a very strange one because in Europe you have an institution that basically builds a launcher and is a customer at the same time. So that’s a situation where the customer and supplier are more or less the same, despite the fact that there is some kind of competition. But black and white, it’s more or less the same. And in contrast, that’s essentially the setup that you saw 25, 30 years ago in the United States where there was no competition, and thus a true lack of development. The real development in terms of launch cadences, in terms of cost, in terms of reliability came from the private sector that was obviously supported by institutional customers, but not on an exclusive basis.
That’s all that we’re arguing for in Europe, when there is a sign of confidence from institutional customers who very early in the process say, “I believe in that technology roadmap. I believe in creating competition to a certain extent.” Supporting the risk of 3 or 4 competitors being out there, would be, from our perspective, the required step to really bring the European launcher landscape forward. This would boost innovation, create competitiveness, drive down prices, create alternative solutions where you have more reliability because you can spread out your launches to different partners where even the requirements for very quick launches to refill a constellation or responsive space strategies or whatever can be fulfilled.
So I think the call to action that we put out in that op-ed is really to let the market and competition with institutional customers take care of itself to a certain extent and not build a monopoly that at the end of the day will not be competitive on a global scale. Because what’s happening right now is, as you know, we are launching European satellites not on a US carrier, but on a private, mostly US owned company. Yeah, it’s a crazy scenario.
OT: Do you think that the model you’re advocating needs to extend also past launch? Are there other areas in which the presence of an institutional anchor client would also be helpful? Perhaps in terms of satellite borne power stations, for example?
ST: I cannot comment on the satellite side of things, but when we look at space transportation, we basically look at three legs, namely ground-to-space transportation, in-space transportation and from-space transportation. And in all three areas, we think that as these are developing markets, institutional support without kind of building an institutional monopoly, would be a sign of confidence. Obviously, in launch we’ve talked about it, but also transportation from space. Before services like de-orbiting of old satellites can be offered commercially, an institutional jump-start is needed for their development. And the same is also true for in-space transportation, where as you know, we are building a three stage rocket with our Redshift orbital transfer vehicle built in that makes operating satellites easier in the future. But also there, we could see the institutions playing an important role in establishing an level playing field for everybody in the market without creating an institutional monopoly.
OT: Are you looking towards lunar operations?
ST: My answer is a resounding yes and no, because as Jean-Jacques Dordain, our chairman, always says: Until you have launched, you’re not a launch company. And this is very, very close to my heart and the executive’s heart because we obviously have tons of ideas and there are tons of exciting things that you could do. Luna is bigger rockets, larger engines, all that stuff. So, yeah, there’s tons of ideas out there. And we have a team of 230 people from over 40 countries. There is never a lack of ideas, never a lack of excitement for stuff that can be done because we can. So obviously, yes, we are excited about these ideas, but to a certain extent also no, because we need to focus. We have limited resources. We have a very demanding schedule. We want to become a launch company and then the sky’s not the limit, pardon the pun. But the necessity to really bring all the resources together to remain focused, to leverage what we have, to be a very early contender in that race towards the first private launch from Europe, is our our main focus.
Note: OT would like to thank RFA CEO Stefan Tweraser for taking the time to speak with us!