Phantom Space: A new rocket startup says it can launch at half the cost of SpaceX

"Our first space launch will occur in less than half the time it took Space X to achieve that milestone."
Chris Young
A render of Phantom Space's Daytona rocket.
A render of Phantom Space's Daytona rocket.

Source: Phantom Space

New rocket startups will invariably have to face comparisons to SpaceX — the company's successful pioneering of reusable rocket technologies has positioned it as a reference point for all private space firms.

The trouble is that, given SpaceX's achievements, it's a high bar to live up to, and the comparisons will increasingly become unfavorable the longer a company goes without bringing something new and substantial to the table.

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Jim Cantrell, CEO and co-founder of startup Phantom Space doesn't shy away from those comparisons. In fact, he claims his company aims to outdo Elon Musk's space firm when it comes to small, cost-effective payload launches.

That would be no small feat, given the fact SpaceX aims to eventually launch its massive, fully reusable Mars-bound Starship rocket at the cost of only $1 million per launch.

Phantom Space arguably has two aces up its sleeve. Firstly, Cantrell was a founding member of SpaceX, meaning he worked with and learned from Elon Musk's team at the very earliest stages of the company's development.

Secondly, Phantom Space won't be building its own rockets. That, Cantrell says, will be the secret weapon that will allow it to stand out in an increasingly crowded market. We reached out to Cantrell to get up to speed on the latest updates from the company, which aims to launch its Daytona rocket at some point in 2023.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering: What sets Phantom Space apart from other private space companies?

Jim Cantrell: "Phantom Space wants to use mass production to design, build, and launch hundreds of smaller rockets— and launch them at less than half the cost of current carriers like Space X. We achieve this through a smart application of modern launch and space vehicle supply chains where we buy our engines from Ursa Major (they have already delivered four engines for upcoming vehicles) and license our avionics and software from NASA.

"This supply chain approach has resulted in extremely efficient capital use as well as a rapid development timeline. And our first space launch will occur in less than half the time it took Space X to achieve that milestone.

"[Our] lower-cost and more efficient launch system could double or triple space access for new space applications."

"We already have secured launch sites across the U.S., and we have regulatory approval for over 50 launches per year with our eye on doubling that number to 100 with additional work and additional sites. The secret to making our business plan viable lies in perfecting the ability to launch our vehicles easily and with less impact on the range and the environment and thus achieve the mass production cost reductions and increased reliability of a true production launcher.

"This lower-cost and more efficient launch system could double or triple space access for new space applications. Smaller companies and far more industries will be able to access new data, images, and insights, and this will spark dozens of new companies looking to serve them."

"Another angle that sets Phantom Space apart is vertical market integration. We are designing and building the smaller, more powerful satellites that will fill up our rocket fleet — and we have a separate business running the satellite constellations that we will be creating in space. One-stop shopping for any business looking to tap into The Final Frontier."

IE: We've read that Phantom Space aims to help tackle the space debris problem. How will it do that?

"We are well-positioned to take on this challenge, and our approach of more frequent and lower-cost space access will encourage the placement of new satellites both lower in orbit where the Earth’s atmosphere can more efficiently clean the debris up naturally and to place satellites in less populated orbits rather than dropping them off with 100’s of other satellites as is done with Rideshare today.

"But if I may ask a question — what space debris problem? It's not a problem yet as we don’t have daily collisions of space objects but rather a growing threat. Clearly, the issue has to be addressed by a combination of natural cleaning mechanisms such as the Earth’s atmosphere and market-based risk assessments.

"One of the primary causes of space debris is rideshare, where you pay to send a satellite to orbit, generally optimized for more expensive satellites. It then drops off smaller satellites in the same orbit, creating that debris. We will replace rideshare by launching smaller satellites individually, targeting less occupied orbits and those orbits that are closer to Earth. This will offer a satellite lifetime more consistent with a safer operation over a period of time.

"We will replace rideshare by launching smaller satellites individually".

"The existence of our launcher will make it easier for operators to launch their satellites on their schedules and to destinations that they choose. As opposed to rideshare, this has important consequences in mitigating the orbital debris problem. We will create the possibility for satellite customers to replace their space assets in space more often and to fly them closer to Earth where physics almost always improves a given satellite's performance while placing it in a regime where natural decay will take these satellites out of service in less than a decade.

Once mainstream, our bespoke launch capability has the potential to drastically reduce the potential for future space debris by leaving items we have launched to burn up in our atmosphere within five, ten or 20 years.

"This hasn’t been done in the past because of the high cost to get individual satellite replacements in place using rideshare. By making that process easier and more cost-efficient, spacecraft will become more like iPhones where there is a service life, and you recycle them.

"At present, many satellites are launched at very high orbits, and they are up there for up to 100 years because of the desire to avoid replacing a capital asset that is inconvenient to launch and very expensive to replace. Others who don’t need that altitude or are not particularly expensive capital assets often arrive there by riding along with an expensive asset that does need to be there.

"Once Phantom Space can make the launch process faster and less costly and destinations can be independently chosen, it will no longer be the main constraint on customers, and they will start to think more about debris in the design process to plan safer missions."

IE: Why do you think big satellites are more of a problem than small mega-constellation satellites?

"Big satellites go into orbits that are typically more problematic from a debris point of view. Imaging satellites generally go into what is called a sun-synchronous orbit. They all are looking at not only similar altitudes but similar inclinations of the orbit. Meaning that when you have multiple satellites within that orbit, the likelihood of them colliding is much higher.

"The problem is they all are seeking the same visibility parameters on the surface of the earth. Generally, because they are farther out, they have to be larger satellites, and larger satellites are more expensive. And the more expensive it is, the longer you want the asset to last in space. This is a byproduct of where you are placing the satellite."

IE: How did your time at SpaceX help to guide the work you are doing now?

"I started with SpaceX very early on, and I had a small role but saw a big outcome. My time at SpaceX taught me how important ideas really are, and that they can turn into big realities with the right amount of belief and the right team supporting you – if you have adequate financial resources.

"It’s a surprising experience to watch your ideas come to life. Like a farmer, the seeds you plant grow, and you cultivate them and trim them. We had the idea to make both satellites and rockets, which eventually SpaceX did.

"[At SpaceX] I learned everyone has to row in the same direction, at the same pace"

"Along the way I also learned it is critically important for everyone on your team to be fully dedicated to the ultimate goal of the company. It’s similar to being in a rowboat. Everyone has to row in the same direction, at the same pace, in order to reach your destination and achieve success.

"After leaving SpaceX, I watched its business model evolve into using the launch as a strategic asset. This enabled them to create things like Starlink at a more advantageous cost and allowed them to control both the cost and timing of the launch. We sought to replicate that within Phantom because we believe that is a very strong capability."

IE: Can you tell us anything about your time working with Elon Musk? Did you learn any big lessons from him? Do you think he learned anything from you?

"I learned to imagine the possibilities in a greater way, to expand your mind to embrace things that seem unlikely or even impossible; rather, than to write them off from the start. Elon is great at doing that — he has said the chances are plausible that we all are living artificial lives inside some virtual-reality fantasy video game being directed by higher beings elsewhere.

"Elon didn’t react to that very kindly. He would have an idea and be convinced that it was absolutely correct."

"Now, if Elon learned anything from me, it might be my warning about how insular and egotistical some people in aerospace can be. We tend to think of ourselves as wizards. Elon didn’t react to that very kindly. He would have an idea and be convinced that it was absolutely correct, and he hasn’t wavered an inch from that idea. You had to kind of admire it."

IE: Do you have a rough estimate for when we will see the first launch of Phantom Space's Daytona rocket? Otherwise, can you tell us about any other upcoming milestones?

"As we look ahead to the remainder of 2022, we anticipate significant business growth, expanded capabilities, and service agreements.

"We are on track for our official launch in Q4 2023. Right now, we’re in testing for the second stage and are on track to complete our hot-fire test by the end of October. We also are aiming to complete our first stage hot-fire test by the end of February.

"Our customers are as excited as we are. Half a dozen companies are looking at signing new service agreements to catch our ride into space, and that growth will accelerate."