Original article in Tribune & Georgian

by Jill Helton

Representatives of ABL Space Systems visited Camden this week to scout out properties for future operations in Camden.

CEO Harry O’Hanley and CFO Dan Piemont made their second trip to the area after their small rocket company signed a memorandum of understanding with Camden County to explore a future presence at the Spaceport Camden.

They are pretty confident that the county’s commercial spaceport project – still in the midst of the pre-application phase for a federal launch operators license – will become a reality.

“We think it will happen and it will be a beautiful thing.” Piemont said during an interview Tuesday at the Tribune & Georgian office in St. Marys.

ABL currently employs about 15 people and is based in Los Angeles, where they also have a small research and development facility. The company website lists both Camden and Kodak, Alaska, as potential launch sites.

“Obviously you can look at a map and see, geographically, (Camden) is a great place to launch,” Piemont said.

They are looking for property in Camden to meet short-term needs for testing their small rocket and then later a facility for manufacturing. They hope some onsite testing can begin as early as 2019.

Their operation is more mobile than what would traditionally be associated with the aerospace industry. With trends like this in mind, county administrator Steve Howard said Spaceport Camden has tailored its business plan to better meet the demands of today’s emerging technology.

“All of existing spaceports in the United States are based on designs from the mid ’50s and early ’60s. These include custom launch pads, vehicle integration facilities and large mission control complexes. What we are seeing is increasing demand of a new type of spaceport – what we call Spaceport 2.0 – which needs very little infrastructure because the launch companies are mobile,” he said.

Howard said a 21st century spaceport will look much different than a 20th century spaceport.

“The outdated spaceports have aging and overburdened infrastructure. The advantage of Spaceport Camden is that it is a blank slate and can be innovative, open and flexible,” Howard added.

O’Hanley and Piemont agreed that flexibility in dealing with a newer spaceport site was definitely a selling point.

A game changer

ABL is a relatively young company in a relatively new niche of the aerospace industry, but all indicators say that’s clearly where the market is headed.

“This size vehicle really lets it become a commercial operation,” O’Hanley said. “When you are building the bigger rockets – the ones of the past that were hundreds of millions of dollars and took years to build and even on the satellite side when the satellites were a billion dollars – there is just no way for that to become a commercial thing.”

ABL is one of a handful of companies trying to exploit cube satellite technology and scaled down rockets and launch systems, which have greatly lowered costs and made that technology more accessible to commercial customers.

“Small satellites can perform unique missions,” Piemont said, “Being much closer to earth, you can provide satellite Internet with much lower latency and you can also take much higher resolution images with relatively small and affordable hardware and we are starting to see more companies exploiting those traits of lower orbit and smaller satellites to bring really exciting products to market in terms of both imaging and communications. Those services are just starting to show their profits.”

Piemont said the more that we can launch as a country and an industry the more value people will extract from space.

“Having global satellite Internet might not affect the day-to-day life of people in a more populated area but if you are not in a populated area…. that’s a totally game-changing thing,” O’Hanley added.

This would help connect rural communities – even those in Georgia that do not have access to high-speed internet – to the global digital marketplace.

A matter of scale

At the most basic level, people like O’Hanley and Piemont are problem solvers and space is the kind of “problem” they like to solve.

When faced with the problem of laypeople being unable to grasp the vastness of space, O’Hanley said he worked out the math one time to arrive at a better explanation.

“If lower orbit space was the equivalent of an Olympic swimming pool, a single satellite would be the size of a red blood cell,” he said.

O’Hanley and Piemont said they understand that it is also difficult for the average person to envision the difference in scale between small and large rockets.

“Obviously it is incredibly exciting when you are sending something to space. It is tough because the analog that people are probably drawing to are the big rockets that launch out of Cape Canaveral so it’s tough to really appreciate the different size this is,” O’Hanley said.

He said a traditional large rocket averages about 12 feet in diameter and 250 feet or more in length compared to the ABL rocket which is 5 feet in diameter and 60 feet long. The same is true of payload.

“The size of the satellites that get launched out of Canaveral, that’s the size of a city bus. They’re huge. We are launching something the size of a refrigerator. There is just this fundamental size difference,” O’Hanley said. “We are way smaller and the propellants are basically kerosene and liquid oxygen so it’s about the same as watching a diesel truck drive down the road.”

Such comparisons make it easier for laypeople to understand, but space is still a puzzle to many.

Transporting a large rocket by truck would require oversized cargo precautions, but the ABL rocket is much more portable and uses a standard tractor trailer.

“We transport the vehicle in a standard shipping container so when our vehicle shows up to Camden it will look no different than if a container full of bananas showed up. If you are actually going to be there on the day it rolled up into town, you probably would not even notice it,” O’Hanley said.

Howard said Camden county first saw this type of design showcased with Vectors test launch from the proposed spaceport property last August.

“That test was really proof of concept that you can tow your launch vehicle, launch pad, mission control center in a convoy of trucks and launch in a matter of a few days,” Howard said.

He added the U.S. Department of Defense through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is encouraging this sort of innovation in the commercial space sector.

“In late 2019, DARPA will host a launch challenge in which qualified teams will compete for prizes with a top prize of $10 million. Teams will receive exact details on the payload in the days before each of the two launch events, with only a few weeks’ notice about the location of the first launch site,” he said.

Familiar territory

The ABL team is developing a new rocket, but their team members and advisors are not new to the industry.

“We are a relatively experienced team compared to some of the others out there. Our team has had some form of orbital launch experience in the past. I do not think there is a difference between working on rocket parts and actually doing orbital programs,” O’Hanley said.

O’Hanley and Piemont, who went to school together at MIT, said rocket technology might seem risky to some, but much of it has already been in practical use for many years.

“While building a rocket seems like this wild moonshine endeavor, the actual elements of doing so are common throughout industry. It is not really as different or foreign as people might say,” O’Hanley said. “If you were to walk into a rocket factory and a small airplane factory, you would see the same tools, the same processes and in most instances the same familiar faces could be working in both shops. It is the same skill sets.”

That’s why targeting the coastal southeast workforce makes sense to ABL. O’Hanley previously worked on the production line at SpaceX. He believes finding skilled workers and working with the local technical college to refine their raw skills is the key to building a quality product.

They said the area workforce, especially military personnel exiting careers at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, also made Camden attractive because those are exactly the types of workers they would recruit as technicians.

“Obviously a big reason we are coming here is because of the Navy base… There is obviously a big aerospace industry throughout Georgia, both north and south, and down into Florida,” O’Hanley said.

Shared goals

O’Hanley said the business relationship between ABL and the Camden County team, which includes Howard and Joint Development Authority director, James Coughlin, has been a natural fit and one that has developed organically.

“I think maybe the best thing is we feel very similarly situated with them since we are both coming up at the same time and the same rate,” O’Hanley said, “And a lot of the near-term milestones for us are the same near-term milestones for them. A lot of the government programs that  are applicable to us are also applicable to them.”

Piemont added that Howard and Coughlin have done a great job showcasing the county.

Howard said working closely with ABL and others during the planning phase of the spaceport also has innumerable benefits for Camden’s team.

“Four years ago, I was in Washington D.C. with SpaceX, I asked them what is one thing Camden County can do differently to make our site more attractive to launch operators,” Howard said. “They told me to include a landing pad in our application because they were planning to bring a first-stage booster back to earth. At the time, that was unimaginable. Today, it’s routine.”

When O’Hanley worked at SpaceX, he helped develop the fin grid landing system that made those landings possible. Howard said there is a lot of synergy and insight that comes with working with innovators and together they can help build a better spaceport.

Howard said this is what sets Spaceport Camden apart from other spaceports that see themselves as”transportation facilities.”

“Transportation facilities build expensive infrastructure in hopes of attracting a tenant. A responsive spaceport business plan incubates new market entrants and works hand in hand with them to support their growth,” Howard said.

The county believes this approach will allow  for operational efficiency and in turn create a competitive advantage for the space company and the county.

“Other spaceports in the past have decided to “build it and they will come,” business model Howard said. “We believe the opposite – you have to build it together and they will stay. What an opportunity for Camden County to participate in an innovation-based economy.”

Original article in Tribune & Georgian

by Jill Helton