Reusable rocket startup iRocket has entered into a new partnership with NASA in its quest to reach commercialization in just two years.
The partnership will give iRocket access to technical and engineering support, chiefly at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The company is hoping that it will conduct its first rocket engine test — an on-the-ground engine firing test — in September.
iRocket is earmarking $50 million over the next five years for the testing and development of its reusable engines and launch vehicle. Access to NASA facilities could eventually mean access to test stands — crucial infrastructure that provides controlled conditions for engine testing, though the company would need to apply for an additional annex to test at MSFC. iRocket will be able to conduct vacuum testing (which simulates space conditions) at the Glenn Research Center in Ohio and sea level testing at Marshall.
“We’re engaged in very intimate discussions, all the way at the center level, at Marshall Space Flight Center,” iRocket CEO Asad Malik said in a recent interview with TechCrunch.
The engines in question will eventually power iRocket’s inaugural Shockwave launch vehicles, fully reusable, autonomous small launchers capable of carrying payload with a maximum size of around 300 kg (661 lbs.) and 1,500 kg (around 3,300 lbs.). Manufactured via 3D printing, the engines will be powered by methane and liquid oxygen. “Methane is going to be the fuel of choice for deep space missions,” Malik said.
The New York-based startup is also aiming to make the engines hypersonic capable, an ambitious goal. But iRocket has ambitious plans. Malik wants to turn the company into the premier supplier for both reusable rocket engines and the rockets themselves. Because it’s designing both rocket stages to be reusable as well — a striking difference between it and other rocket developers — Malik said the company could one day not only launch satellites and cargo missions, but also clear space junk or retrieve experiments for biotech companies.
Malik pointed out that the sale of Aerojet Rocketdyne to Lockheed Martin — which is still under review by the Federal Trade Commission — is going to leave a gap in the market. “That’s going to open up the U.S. without an independent rocket supplier at a time when Congress is really pushing hard for us to move away from foreign-bought parts,” he said. “So it’s an opportunity for us to work with the government, the Pentagon, NASA and other partners to develop this next-generation space propulsion capability that we need.”
Update 11/10/21: The story has been updated to reflect iRocket's agreement with the Marshall Space Flight Center.