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Rocket manufacturer Vector zeroes in on $60M contract

A fledgling rocket company based in Tucson announced a major boost as it plans to build out a factory here — a $60 million contract to conduct a series of satellite launches beginning in 2019.

Vector Space Systems said last week it plans to hire 200 employees as it constructs a facility near Tucson International Airport, adjacent to high-altitude balloon firm World View.

Vector will loft six satellites for Denver-based York Space Systems from 2019 through 2022, with the option for 14 additional launches, company representatives said.

"The first launch through the agreement will also be the inaugural launch of the Vector-H vehicle," the company said.

Vector plans to shake up the satellite industry by offering frequent, lower-cost launches using rockets a fraction of the size commonly used to carry gear into orbit.

York Space Systems builds small and medium-sized satellites, and says it plans to "meet evolving market needs with a Model-T approach."

"Dedicated responsive launch is a game-changer, it allows us to completely rethink our architectural approaches to space, and opens the skies to the space data frontier," York CEO Dirk Wallinger said in a press release.

"Since our launch earlier this year, Vector has made it a priority to engage with partners who share our mission of making space more accessible to a new generation of innovators, and York Space Systems is a shining example of this type of partner," said Jim Cantrell, Vector's CEO. "By leveraging Vector's low cost launch vehicle family, York Space Systems will now be able to offer more frequent low cost space access opportunities for new missions and data gathering missions, furthering our mission to eliminate the barriers for startups and entrepreneurs."

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The company plans to hire 200 employees over three years, with an average salary of $70,000, county officials said. Vector forecasts a $290 million economic impact over five years as they build its 40-foot-tall rockets, and estimates about 90 indirect jobs will be created as a result of the expansion. The company will lease land from the county and make a capital investment of $19 million in that period, and up to $50 million over 15 years, officials said.

The county is still negotiating the terms of the lease, and specific details about the transaction weren't yet available, government officials said.

Vector plans to lease 15 acres from Pima County in the Aerospace, Defense and Technology Business & Research Park near TIA, and build a 76,000-square-foot manufacturing and admin facility, with the capability to double the manufacturing space with an additional 40,000 square feet, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told the Board of Supervisors in a memo Wednesday afternoon.

The county is negotiating a 15-25 year "straight market rate ground lease" for the land, Huckelberry said, "covering all of the county's development costs, with a straight-line amortization."

Founded by Cantrell, who played an early role in Elon Musk's SpaceX venture, Vector bought Garvey Spacecraft Corporation in July, obtaining that company's prototypes for rockets that are considerably smaller than the 100-foot vehicles that generally carry satellites to space. John Garvey, who was also involved with SpaceX, joined Vector as chief technology officer.

The company told the county it has nearly $100 million in contracts for launches signed already, with another $130 million in launches in negotiation. Cantrell said that the $60 million deal with York covers all 20 launches, and had been included in the figure for deals already underway.

For the moment, Vector shares a small warehouse home on East 16th Street with another of Cantrell's ventures, Vintage Exotics, which manufactures parts for old Ferrari, Maserati, Shelby, Corvette and other sports cars.

The company plans to begin blasting its rockets, which have been tested in a small-scale sub-orbital launch, into space with 10 to 100-pound payloads by 2018. The company plans to build the rockets in Tucson and use launch pads in Alaska and Florida, and says its systems will be much more affordable than other satellite platforms. They will also launch more frequently than more massive rockets, company representatives said, and two of the stages will be reusable. The firm already has testing and development contracts with NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and a customer in a Finnish satellite company.

Vector successfully tested a smaller version of its rockets July 30 in Mojave, Calif., with the launch of a 12-foot prototype with a 3D-printed injector that used what the company calls a "unique propellant combination of liquid oxygen and densified propylene." That test included a prototype payload from Finnish company Iceye.

Vector has a four-year deal to conduct 21 launches for Iceye's commercial SAR (synthetic aperture radar) satellite constellation.

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The company was awarded $2.5 million from NASA and DARPA to continue developing a two-stage rocket system. The funding will back Vector's work on repurposing its technology for the XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane, a planned replacement for the space shuttle program. The unmanned craft will fly to the edge of space and launch small rockets to boost satellites to orbit.

The company's Vector-R vehicle, designed to carry micro-satellites into space, will have a carbon-fiber airframe and lightweight pressurized propulsion system, the company said.

Vector plans to launch its rockets from the Pacific Spaceport Complex - Alaska, on Kodiak Island, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. They will also look at possibly launching from a barge in the Pacific Ocean off California, company representatives said.

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Vector Space Systems