Founding a Space Launch Company: The Aphelion Aerospace Story

I have been asked over the years about the inception of Aphelion and history since then. It’s been quite the journey and I thought I would write a blog post summarizing what we’ve done.

It began with a simple idea…

We had our genesis in early 2016 when the original founders (Matthew Travis, Sihao Huang, David Nagy, and Kai Darrow) started informally discussing what it would take to build the world’s smallest orbital launch vehicle. As we debated starting a project to pursue this further, we realized there was commercial potential for a dedicated nanosatellite launch vehicle. We formally organized into a new business venture, Aphelion Orbitals, and in June held our first founders’ meetings in Manhattan for several days of planning discussions and small rocket and high-altitude research balloon launch.

In February 2017, the company underwent a re-structuring in order to be better positioned for outside investment, which became a central effort of the founders through the summer. Work on the business plan, pitch deck, financial projections and project plans occupied the team. We successfully completed negotiations for a $500,000 Series Seed round of equity funding at the end of August 2017 and operations began to ramp up rapidly the next month. One of the first priorities was to hire full-time lead engineers to address the core focus of R&D efforts.

A period of rapid growth followed. An immediate need to consolidate staff, located across the United States, resulted in centralizing operations in Union City, NJ. This meant that most personnel were now located in the northeast U.S. and better able to collaborate, with other employees traveling to work on-site as needed. Concurrent with staff relocation, spending increased in order to complete outfitting the Union City facility with tooling, equipment, computers and other office items necessary to proceed with development of the common propulsion system.

 We learned the hard way to anticipate the unanticipated!

Many startups in their early growth stage experience challenges and we were no different. During the winter and early spring, many external factors made technical progress challenging and inhibited smooth operations. Flooding at our facility was a repeated problem during demolition and renovation activities. Beginning in December and lasting through the winter, the offices were repeatedly flooded in up to several inches of water from leaks in the ceiling, second floor roof or walls.

In hindsight, it seems almost comical to picture oneself walking into a high-technology R&D facility only to see a dozen streams of brown water pouring through the second story floor onto expensive console, oscilloscopes and other electronics while employees frantically tear open garbage bags to put over everything. Then, with two inches of water covering the floor, the team still sitting down and trying their best to continue work.

Despite the challenges, progress continued. In December, we started work on the design for a custom mobile rocket engine test stand. The selection of a unique propellant chemical formula dictated the design and assembly of a custom test stand.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, so…

A major change was made to the propulsion system during this time. Like many innovations, it began as a change out of necessity. After a few months of refining our system designed, we realized that certain aspects would be costlier and less reliable than we required. We investigated prior work conducted at Sandia National Labs related to our problem and found a candidate solution. However, it had never been utilized outside the laboratory in a large-scale commercial system.

The challenge we now faced became one of taking an experimental propellant that had never been outside of a research environment and creating the first commercial launch vehicle propulsion system to utilize it. With the new propellant selection made, work was able to continue without interruption or losing any of the engineering work that had been accomplished to date.

Late April through May of 2018 proved to be one of the most productive periods of the year. We made several public presentations in New York City. The first was sponsored by NewSpace NYC and provided an opportunity to demonstrate the company’s novel propellant publicly for the first time. The second event, sponsored by the New York Space Alliance, was a “pitch” to a panel of venture capitalists and public audience at the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in the space shuttle Enterprise pavilion. The most positive outcome of this event was the eventual hiring of additional engineers.

Success didn’t come easily, but perseverance paid off

To finally reach the day of the first engine hot-fire test was a tremendous challenge. First, the team searched for locations on privately owned land within a reasonable distance from Union City in the hope of securing a location to conduct test activities on an ongoing basis. Multiple parties were contacted and, despite positive feedback, no agreement could be reached with any.

After a couple weeks of reaching out to several airports, an airport in Pennsylvania enthusiastically agreed to serve as host for our first full-scale engine ground test fire campaign.

On November 8, 2018, we successfully conducted a demonstration test fire of the flight-scale storable and environmentally-friendly propulsion system for the first time. The test proved the viability of the technology that will power the first and second stages of our launch vehicle. The engine produced over one ton of thrust for thirty seconds in this test, 20 times higher than lab-scale engine firings.

A period of transformation

At the end of 2018, as Aphelion Orbitals reached the end of its Seed runway, a major reorganization took place. 2019 saw evolution to position the company for continued growth while focusing on reaching commercial maturity. In January 2019, the reorganized business was re-incorporated as a new entity, Aphelion Aerospace, to continue the mission to bring our new technology and launch service to market.

We also put renewed focus on building industry relationships with vendors and new partners. In the last half of the year, we again increased our visibility at industry events such as the NewSpace Conference and public appearances.

Aphelion, like many businesses, faced tremendous headwinds throughout 2020 because of the COVID pandemic. With stay-at-home orders and business closures, for several months, company work was almost entirely halted. However, we had formed a partnership with an aerospace company in Europe that gave us just enough cash to stay alive through the spring and summer. Unfortunately, that company was forced to shut its doors due to the pandemic.

It was at this time, in August, that Aphelion’s current CEO, Miguel Ayala, reached out to Matthew Travis about the potential for collaboration. During the following months, a plan was formed for how to move forward and get out of the difficult situation that we were in. Matthew split leadership roles and brought Miguel onboard as CEO in early 2021.

In April of 2021, Aphelion Aerospace relocated to the Denver, CO metro area and moved into a new headquarters and R&D facility in the Lakewood suburb. The rest of the year was dedicated to adding engineering staff and pushing development forward with the goal of getting a new engine on the test stand for hotfire testing at the facility of our vendor Frontier Astronautics.

Making progress looking to the future

Reaching our next propulsion system test campaign brought its own challenges. We had to travel to Aphelion’s old facility in Union City to pick up some critical engine hardware and the data acquisition and control system. The hardware needed some modification because we had changed the operating parameters since 2018. We also wanted more control and telemetry channels on the DAQ and so we added additional control boards to the computer and completely rewrote the software.

We had wanted to use the same propellant storage tanks as in the previous test campaign, but found out to our dismay that, sometime during the intervening years, they had been stolen from our facility. This meant we had to manufacture new tanks. What was anticipated to be a straightforward process, cutting and welding steel, turned into its own headache. First, we had to fight supply chain issues which delayed our progress. When we finally had the materials, the contractor doing the welding did not perform adequately. Every single weld showed significant leakage. We arranged for another contractor to cut and re-weld everything. Fortunately, the re-built tanks passed hydrostatic testing, although by this time, we were significantly behind our original schedule.

Finally, in April, we conducted the long-awaited hotfire test campaign. With that completed, we quickly moved into the design phase of Version 2 of the propulsion system. This is an evolution of the original design that uses 3D printing and composite technologies that Aphelion has licensed from NASA as well as regenerative cooling of the engine.

This engine will be used for Helios and, as a steppingstone, on a suborbital development rocket that Aphelion hopes to launch in early 2023. Design work on the Kyubi Lite rocket is currently underway and fabrication targeted to begin by the beginning of 2023.

Aphelion Orbitals 2018 Engine Test Campaign Slideshow