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The rocket company that aims to undercut SpaceX on cost will launch 3 missions from Virginia in 2018

  • Rocket builder Vector will launch three orbital missions with Virginia Space.
  • "We need to break the classic handcuffs on the costs of launching," Vector CEO Jim Cantrell told CNBC in an exclusive interview.
  • Vector is targeting its first launch from Virginia for July.

Rocket company Vector will conduct three commercial missions from Virginia Space's Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops launch center.

This is the first orbital contract with a spaceport for Vector, the next major step toward the company's goal of launching more than 100 times per year, chief executive Jim Cantrell told CNBC in an exclusive interview.

"These will go all the way into orbit with satellites onboard," Cantrell said. "We need to break the classic handcuffs on the costs of launching, and that requires people thinking differently."

The Vector-R vehicle is a low-cost rocket intended to meet the growing demand from the microsatellite sector, which is expected to become a $7.5 billion industry in five years. At less than $3 million per launch, Vector is aiming for a 20th the cost of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

An additional advantage for Vector, Cantrell said, is its mobility. Vector requires minimal infrastructure to launch its rockets — as little as a concrete pad.

Vector is targeting its first Wallops launch for July, with two or three more in the second half of the year. The contract includes an option for five more launches, a possibility Cantrell is optimistic about.

Dale Nash, CEO and executive director of Virginia Space, told CNBC that Cantrell's rapid cadence vision is possible from his spaceport.

"It's entirely conceivable that, with the three separate launch locations on Wallops, we could launch three rockets in one day," Nash said.

A Vector Space Systems “Vector-R” rocket sits next to a launch tower at the Virginia Space mid-Atlantic regional spaceport (MARS), located on the southern portion of NASA Wallops Island.
Vector Space Systems
A Vector Space Systems “Vector-R” rocket sits next to a launch tower at the Virginia Space mid-Atlantic regional spaceport (MARS), located on the southern portion of NASA Wallops Island.

The only issue with the spaceport, both leaders noted, is the difficulty of using it to launch vehicles into polar orbits, which are necessary for some satellites. Cantrell said Vector would likely consider other locations, like Alaska Aerospace's on Kodiak Island.

Cantrell called the next three launch vehicles "prototypes," meaning that they will be built by hand. This traditional method — used by every rocket manufacturer from United Launch Alliance to Elon Musk's SpaceX — is not the future for Vector, however. Cantrell says Vector will soon have a 40,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Tucson, Arizona.

"Part of the goal with going for a full assembly-like production is cost reductions," Cantrell said before comparing his plans to the automotive industry. "It is rare with autos to have 'lemons' because modern manufacturers are extremely reliable, and we're emulating that product."

With $31 million in funding led by Sequoia — one of Silicon Valley's best-known venture capital firms — Vector is in the final stages of negotiating its first customers. "We have four different companies we're negotiating contracts with for the first four launches in 2018," Cantrell said.