The Romanian-born rocket scientist stood before his rocket, sitting on a flat-bed trailer in front of the New Mexico Museum of Space History. He was there to introduce the community to his company’s venture.
Dumitru Popescu is chief executive officer of ARCA Space Corporation, and the singlestage rocket he and his team have developed is designed to fly directly to low-earth orbit. If you’ve heard Google is planning to launch a constellation of approximately 75 satellites to upgrade Google Maps and SpaceX currently is launching a constellation of 66 satellites for Iridium Communications to improve satellite phones, pagers, and Internet service, you get an idea of the potential for what Popescu is doing.
“Between now and 2022,” he says, “forecasts show more than 3,000 satellites will be launched. This is a $5.3 billion dollar market, and we are working to win a sizable share of it.”
What makes this so important to Las Cruces is ARCA Space Corporation is based right here. Popescu and his team came to New Mexico in 2004 to participate in the Ansari X-Prize competition. He liked the area so well, he and the other young aerospace engineers — think of them as rocket scientists — comprising ARCA Space Corporation decided to relocate their company from Europe to here.
Since 2014, ARCA has leased space in a hanger at the Las Cruces Airport and recently moved to larger facilities off U.S. 70 at the Brahman Road exit. Right now, the company employs 21 people. They are aerospace engineers, electrical and mechanical technicians, and support staff, like the office manager.
For the balance of this year, ARCA will be involved in testing and evaluating its design. Among the tests required are a vacuum test at the NASA White Sands facility, avionics tests at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., and fight systems at Kennedy Space Center. While this is going on, ARCA is working through the process of obtaining its license from the Federal Aviation Administration, necessary for launch. When all is complete and acceptable, they will take their rocket, called the Haas 2CA (named after Medieval rocket pioneer Conrad Haas) to Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia for its first flight.
Now, think about it a minute. Until that time, not a single rocket ever launched into orbit has been a singlestage-to-orbit vehicle. All others used a booster stage and upper stages to orbit. On its first flight, ARCA’s Haas 2CA will achieve orbit from launch. That’s never been done before.
Once the evaluation program and qualification flight are complete, ARCA will begin production of its rocket in Las Cruces. Popescu says, “We plan to build a hundred launchers per year. That’s our goal for 2019.”
It will mean upwards of a hundred or more new jobs for Las Cruces. The chief executive couldn’t predict exactly how many but he says they will have a production line in place. That will provide opportunities for other companies that supply a manufacturer like ARCA to shorten the supply line by establishing facilities here.
Employment will bring disposable income for housing, food and transportation, and all the other products and services people need as well as contributions to the city’s, county’s, and state’s tax base.
“High-technology products add value to the local economy,” Popuscu explains. “It’s not like I bring something built outside the state here. If we produce here, if we spend money here for production, if we hire local employees, that adds value.”
The people at ARCA Space Corporation are confident in their success. For good reason. They’ve managed to design and build a simple, lost-cost launcher. The Haas 2CA costs about $1 million to launch. Popescu compared this to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which requires about $60 million to launch. It is, of course, a much larger rocket with a much larger payload. The Haas 2CA is 53 feet long and has a payload of 220 pounds. The Falcon 9 has a payload of 55,000 pounds, but its second stage, necessary to obtain orbit, is longer than ARCA’s vehicle.
Looking at a comparable system, Popescu points to RocketLab’s Electron rocket, a 55-foot-long vehicle which requires nearly $5 million to launch. “We will achieve single stage to orbit at one fifth the cost,” he add, “which will make us the lowest-cost launcher in history.”
Another point in ARCA’s favor is the ability to launch from inland. Except for the Russians, who have always launched over land from Kazakhstan, all rockets have been launched over water. Booster stages need someplace to land, or in this case to splash. With only a single stage, it’s possible to launch from anywhere — like Spaceport America — and ARCA is negotiating with New Mexico’s premiere spaceport for facilities to do just that.
As ARCA moves ahead with its plans, Popescu has some advice for New Mexico lawmakers. “I really think they should get involved and, if possible, help bring rocket launches to New Mexico.” Why? “Because it’s in the best interest of the economy.”
Commercial spaceflight — especially in New Mexico — has taken longer than anyone would have thought. Getting to space is hard and demands a steep learning curve. But, with companies like ARAC Space Corporation, success is nearly here. We just have to be a bit more patient.
ARCA’s Haas 2CA is a rocket with some unique features. Next month I’ll explain what they are and how this rocket works.