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Stoke Space raises $9.1 million for rocket reusability

Stoke Space Technologies, the Renton, Wash.-based company founded by veterans of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, has attracted $9.1 million in seed investments for extending rocket reusability to new frontiers.

The first goal will be to develop a new kind of reusable upper stage, Stoke co-founder and CEO Andy Lapsa said. “That’s the last domino to fall in the industry before reusability is commonplace,” Lapsa told GeekWire. “Even right now, I think space launch is in a production-limited paradigm.”

Rocket reusability is the watchword, to be sure — not only at Blue Origin, where Lapsa was an award-winning rocket engineer, but also at SpaceX and other leading launch companies.

Both Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have said total reusability is the key to driving down the cost of access to space, and opening up new frontiers including regular runs to Mars and back. Until recently, however, the focus has been on reusing a rocket’s first-stage booster. The upper stage — which kicks in after the first stage is exhausted to push payloads the rest of the way to orbit — typically burns up during atmospheric re-entry at the end of its flight.

SpaceX is aiming to change that paradigm with its Starship super-rocket. The massive prototypes that are currently being tested at that company’s South Texas launch facility are part of a development effort for reusable second stages that would sit on top of an even more massive Super Heavy booster — and fly themselves back to a landing pad after they’ve done their job.

Lapsa said what SpaceX is doing with Starship is “incredible.”

“But I think that same type of mentality needs to be applied to the commercial satellite market, in order to really provide them with what they’re looking for,” he added. “So that’s where we’re starting.”

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Cosmic Space

Blue Origin veterans spark space startups

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture turned 20 years old this week — and although the privately held company hasn’t yet put people into space, or put a rocket into orbit, it has spawned a new generation of space startups.

One of those startups, Relativity Space, pulled up stakes in Seattle early on and moved to Southern California. Now it’s making a multimillion-dollar splash and putting the pieces in place for the first launch of its Terran rocket from Florida next year.

Relativity is also going through a leadership transition: Jordan Noone, the venture’s co-founder and chief technology officer, announced today on Twitter that he’ll step back and become an executive adviser “in preparation for starting my next venture.” Relativity’s other co-founder, Blue Origin veteran Tim Ellis, will stay on as CEO.

Other startups are in semi-stealth mode. Here are three notable Seattle-area ventures with Blue Origin connections:

Stoke Space Technologies: Incorporated last October in Renton. Co-founders are CEO Andrew Lapsa, who was responsible for all aspects of development and operation for Blue Origin’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 and BE-3U engines; and Thomas Feldman, an engineer who played a key role in designing components for the more powerful BE-4 engine, fueled by liquefied natural gas.

Stoke’s website says the company is “building technology to seamlessly connect Earth and orbit.” In May, the company won a $225,000 SBIR Phase I grant from the National Science Foundation to work on an integrated propulsion solution for reusable rocket upper stages.

Stoke says it’ll use the NSF funding “to develop new technology enabling space launch vehicles to re-enter the atmosphere and land propulsively at a target destination for reuse.” SpaceX’s Falcon rockets and Blue Origin’s yet-to-be-built New Glenn rocket are designed with first-stage reusability in mind. Stoke is looking ahead to the next giant leap in reusable rockets.

In addition to Lapsa and Feldman, LinkedIn lists three other Stoke employees with Blue Origin experience. And they have  job openings for a lead system architect and a “Superhuman.”

Reach Space Technologies: Incorporated in February in Maple Valley. The company’s website is still password-protected, but LinkedIn lists Mike Krene, former senior propulsion engineer at Blue Origin, as founder and CEO. Krene spent a decade at Blue Origin, and before that, he dealt with propulsion systems at SpaceX and Pratt & Whitney.

The venture says it aims to “accelerate the time and reduce the cost for new launch startups to get to commercial viability, thereby growing the overall launch market.”

“Our engine systems also provide a high-value, commercially focused propulsion option for existing NewSpace and traditional launch providers,” Reach Space says on its LinkedIn page.

The company says it has between two and 10 employees, including “leading engineers with experience across many flight and development rocket engine systems.”

Starfish Space: Incorporated last November in Kent, where Blue Origin is headquartered. The co-founders are Trevor Bennett, a former flight sciences engineer at Blue Origin; and Austin Link, who spent three years at Blue Origin as a flight sciences simulation engineer. Ian Heidenberger, Starfish’s principal roboticist, was an autonomous-controls engineer at Blue Origin.

Starfish says it’s a venture-backed startup but has not yet revealed details about its investors or investments. It’s working on an “on-demand, in-space transportation service,” including a space tug that could be used to relocate, deorbit or extend the life of satellites. It’s also developing the software to support rendezvous and proximity operations — with an emphasis on electric propulsion.

Four years ago, Jeff Bezos told me his goal for Blue Origin was to build the “heavy-lifting infrastructure” for a wider space industry ecosystem, just as the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and the internet furnished the infrastructure that got Amazon off the ground. Now it looks as if Blue Origin is providing a seedbed for that ecosystem, even before the company has fully occupied its own niche in the marketplace.

Correction for 12:35 a.m. PT Sept. 10: We’ve fixed the spelling of Ian Heidenberger’s name. Hat tip to Isaac Alexander.