A tour at rocket startup Phantom Space

Jim Cantrell at Phantom

Creating a new rocket company is not something anyone can do. Nor is it something that even smart people can do, nonchalantly. The history of rocketry is littered with hundreds of attempts, almost all of which failed.

Jim Cantrell, pictured on the right standing next to one of the first test prototypes for a new rocket being made by his new company, Phantom Space, is one such person. In the mid-2010s Cantrell partnered with a number of others to found the company Vector, hoping to be one of the first smallsat rocket companies to launch a cheap and efficient rocket placing tiny satellites into orbit. At the time, Cantrell and Vector were racing neck and neck with Rocket Lab for the honor of being the first to do so.

While Rocket Lab succeeded in 2018, and has since completed more than twenty launches, Vector ended up on the ash heap of history, going bankrupt in 2019. The company’s failure was mostly due to problems with its rocket engine, which in turn caused one of its major investors to back out.

Cantrell however is apparently someone who does not take defeat quietly. Using what he had learned at Vector, in 2021 he started a new rocket company, Phantom Space, with a target date for its first test launch the summer of 2023.

Today Cantrell gave me a quick tour of Phantom’s operations here in Tucson.
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Phantom Space raises $5 million in investment capital

Rising from the ashes: Phantom Space, the new startup smallsat rocket company created by Jim Cantrell, the former CEO of the smallsat rocket company Vector, has now successfully raised $5 million in seed money to begin development of its rocket, dubbed Daytona.

The expendable Daytona will be powered by eight Hadley engines — seven on the first stage and one on the upper stage. The engines are an example of Phantom Space’s strategy of leveraging externally developed tech; Hadleys are built by Denver-based company Ursa Major Technologies.

According to my sources, the reason Vector never flew and Cantrell and the company parted ways was that the engines they were building for the rocket ended up under-powered. It seems Cantrell has taken a different approach with his new startup by buying engines from an outside source instead of building them in house.

Vector changes CEO, might have money issues

Capitalism in space: Jim Cantrell, who had been the CEO of smallsat rocket company Vector Launch since inception, has apparently left the company.

Vector, a micro-launch company founded in 2016 to build small rockets for payloads of up to 60kg, may be in financial trouble, multiple industry sources told Ars on Friday. A spokeswoman for Vector did not comment on that. However, she did confirm the company has parted ways with its chief executive: “Jim Cantrell is no longer with Vector effective today. John Garvey has assumed the role of CEO.”

I wish this story wasn’t so, though I also admit my instincts were telling me things were going sour with the continuing delays in their test launch schedule.

Jim Cantrell was an unusual CEO, always available and open. He generously took me on personal tours of Vector facilities, twice, first in March 2017 and again in January 2019. I wish him well in whatever future endeavors he undetakes.

As for Vector, they need to get off the ground. They had had a substantial head start over many of the other new smallsat rocket companies, but that lead has now evaporated.

More information here. It appears one of their major investors might have pulled out. It also appears they have temporarily suspended operations, shuttering their offices.

A tour of Vector Space Systems

Jim Cantrell and cars

[UPDATE: I have been informed by Vector’s PR department that they have recently changed the company’s name, dropping “Space Systems” from the title. I can’t really change the title here, but I thought I note this fact for my readers.]

Today I got a quick tour of Vector Space System’s very blue collar but active rocket factory in Tucson, Arizona. My tour guide was Jim Cantrell, the CEO of the company.

Cantrell, shown on the right in front of one of his side businesses fixing and refurbishing race cars and rare luxury sports cars (also located in this factory), started out with a love of race cars, which he still builds and races. As he said to me, “Long endurance car racing is still my thing.”

However, he has also spent his life in the space business. He has worked for government agencies and numerous private businesses, including SpaceX at its very beginning. Vector Space Systems is an effort put together by him and several other people to capture the smallsat market, a market he truly believes is going to explode with activity in the coming years. If things go as he wishes, they hope to launch at least one hundred times a year, from multiple launch sites. Their goal is simplicity and quick turnaround at an inexpensive cost.

The company is presently in the testing phase leading up to their first orbital launches, which they hope to start in 2018. Right now they are building a series of full scale versions of their Vector-R rocket with a dummy second stage. The idea is to do a string of suborbital test flights, the first of which will fly in about a week from Mohave in California, with the second flying from the Georgia spaceport in Camden County. The image below is the first stage of that first test rocket.

Vector test first stage

Vector first stage engine

second test rocket

For this flight their main goal is to test the engine, which Cantrell is showing me in the picture to the right. I was astonished at how small and simple the engine was. In fact, the rocket itself was amazingly small. It looked like it could almost fit inside a typical moving truck.

Below and to the right is the first stage for their second test flight, presently being assembled. They hope it will be ready for flight in only a few weeks after the first flight. They plan five suborbital test flights, with the last capable of getting about 90% to orbit. Along the way they will test their avionics, the rocket’s balancing systems, and its computer and tanks. Once these tests are complete they will then move to testing the orbital version in 2018.

Obviously, all this depends on every test flight being successful. But then, even if something goes wrong they will learn something and move on. For example, they recently transported an engineering version of the rocket to the visitor center at Kennedy. As Cantrell explained, “We learned things new just making that move.”

bumper sticker

In the end, I think the bumper sticker to the right, attached to the window of Vector Space System’s office, sums everything up. The people at Vector want to make money in space, but they — like everyone in the space business — also love making rockets and engines and going fast. What better combination from life could you ask for?