X-Bow Systems, the first new entrant in decades into the U.S. solid rocket motor business, is expecting to ramp up on one or more programs in the coming six to 12 months with an aim to garner a small but meaningful chunk of market share in five years, says the co-founder and chief of the rocket company.
X-Bow was founded in 2016 but only came out of stealth mode this spring with the backing of several venture capital firms and an investment by Lockheed Martin
Since then, the Albuquerque-based company in June conducted a full-scale static fire test of its 32-inch diameter Ballesta solid rocket motor and followed up in late July with the successful first launch of its Bolt rocket in a sub-orbital flight, proving out all primary test objectives. Those objectives included a full-scale duration burn of the rocket motor and a safe separation of the payload test vehicle.
Now that the company has surfaced, inquiries have been coming in and conversations are underway with prime contractors who are asking about rocket motor designs for specific applications, Jason Hundley, X-Bow’s CEO, told Defense Daily in a recent interview. The company is responding to requests for proposals, most of which the federal government is the end customer, so it takes some time to ramp up given the various terms and conditions but “I see us on…probably one to three programs within the next six to 12 months,” he said.
The U.S. solid rocket motor market is currently shared by two legacy competitors, Northrop Grumman [NOC] and Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD], but Hundley believes that X-Bow can win a 10 to 20 percent market share in about five years, maybe 10. Northrop Grumman got into the solid rocket motor business through its 2018 acquisition of Orbital ATK.
To get there, Hundley said that X-Bow will have to execute but there’s an opportunity to “really shine with our speed to market.”
X-Bow has a vertically integrated business model that it describes as make, build, fly. The make step is the company’s additive manufacturing for its solid propellent used in its motors. Hundley believes X-Bow is likely the only company using the additive manufacturing approach, which can be done less expensively, with less real estate, and faster than the legacy suppliers.
In June the company delivered its first Rocket Factory In-a-Box to the Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards AFB, Calif., for evaluation. The small factory is essentially four shipping containers with the design, automation and additive manufacturing capabilities “to prove that you don’t need 500 acres and $500 million to build an energetic factory,” Hundley said.
The build part of the process is the Ballesta motor.
“It is the largest solid rocket motor flown by a company not named Aerojet, not named ATK, Northrop Grumman in the last 30 years,” he said. “And so, we think that’s going to put us on the map of potentially being started to be considered as a new, non-traditional small business solid rocket motor provider for increased competition in and industry that desperately needs it.”
The fact that there are only two providers of solid rocket motors in the U.S. led the U.S. government earlier this year to block Lockheed Martin’s proposed acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne, which is the only independent supplier of the technology. The Federal Trade Commission said the deal would lessen competition and increase prices.
The Bolt launch vehicle built by X-Bow is its first vehicle in a planned suite of modular boost rockets. This is X-Bow’s “fly-lane,” which will be launch-as-a-service, Hundley said.
The July flight of the Bolt included a payload provided by Los Alamos National Laboratory, and “we’re looking at a series of sub-orbital launches with that customer over the next several years,” Hundley said.
X-Bow expects to be competitive with rocket motors that are between two and 60-inches in diameter, he said. The larger diameter compares to the GEM 63 solid rocket boosters built by Northrop Grumman that are just over 63-inches in diameter and are used to help lift the Vulcan rocket into orbit.
For orbital launches, Hundley said its rockets will carry payloads weighing between 100 and 300 kilograms.
For the Bolt flight, Hundley said the rocket motor was assembled at the White Sands test range in New Mexico less than two weeks before the launch, demonstrating a “just-in-time” delivery approach that can meet customers’ needs for responsive missions.
In discussions with various stakeholders, including the government, they’re just like, ‘I don’t even know how to think this way,’ because usually you have to work years in advance to get into the factory queue,” he said. “And then a rocket motor pops out as a whole unit at the end.”
Once a legacy manufacturer begins to build a rocket engine, that will take between six to 12 weeks, Hundley said. If a company wants to scale up with a new production line, that can be five to 10 years he said, “so their manufacturing process really constrains them,” he said.
With X-Bow’s modular and scalable factory, Hundley thinks the company will be able to open a new production line in six to nine months. As for building a rocket motor, the company plans to do that in one to five business days, he said.