By Eric Peterson | Feb 01, 2021
Launch vehicles and small satellites
The married team of Randa and Roderick Milliron "were independently fascinated with the idea of human spaceflight" in the early 1990s.
At the time, Randa notes that NASA wasn't going to lead the charge. "It became a DIY situation," she says. "You had to look at the whole picture and figure out how to do it yourself."
Randa, then a television director and producer, and Roderick, an aerospace engineer and now Interorbital's CTO, witnessed an experimental rocket engine demonstration with the Pacific Rocket Society at the Mojave Test Area.
"It was life-changing," says Randa. "We were transformed in that moment and realized we had to go along this path. Something about the fire and the power and all of that potentially doing work for you was intriguing."
"We decided to embark on a path that would make space accessible for anyone who wanted to go there," says Milliron. "If there's a cult of the rocket, this is it."
The Millirons started the company in Los Angeles in "a borrowed garage with $1,800 of lottery winnings" in 1995, says Randa, then relocated to Mojave a year later. "We're the longest running purely rocket company at the Mojave Air and Space Port."
Interorbital Systems' key differentiator is cost. "We found the whole aerospace sector was grossly overpriced," says Randa. "We approached the whole thing like an independent film where you have no budget, but somehow that film gets made."
The result is the NEPTUNE Series, which she calls "the world's lowest-cost satellite launch vehicle." Thrust ranges from 1,000 to 30,000 pounds, and the system is modular. "We bundle identical modules together and if we need heavier lift, that's how it's done," she explains.
The company's first suborbital launches took place in 1999, and Interorbital now has a backlog of 170 payloads. The first orbital launches are slated for the second half of 2021. "By the third or fourth quarter of this year we should be operational and start clearing that manifest," says Randa.
The launch market includes the aerospace market as well as academia, advertising, entertainment, and even space burials. "Everyone's invited," says Randa.
The company also manufactures small satellite kits. "We've done that since 2009," says Randa. "We're one of the preeminent purveyors of STEM satellite kits of TubeSats, which we invented, and CubeSats, which are the industry standard."
Noting that small satellites are "the fastest-growing sector in aerospace," Randa says, "That's our bread and butter, selling these kits and the launches that go with them."
Manufacturing is vertically integrated to keep costs low, and the location allows the company to test rockets in the field. "Everything is done in-house," says Randa. "We do everything from rocket engines to the software. We also manufacture the payloads, and most of them are on our satellites."
The shop is outfitted with CNC machines, 3D printers, and filament winding, but a good deal of work is done by hand. "The initial rockets are handmade, and then they're put on a mass production setup for stocking our shelves with parts, so if somebody calls with a rush order for a rocket, we have something that's ready to go," says Randa. "They're aren't many design engineers like that, who know what metal feels like."
The location at the Mojave Air and Space Port is ideal for prototyping and iterating, she adds. "We are great believers in actual, real-world testing.You can only do so much with computer-driven testing."
The strategy is paying off. "We've been able to fly for 25 years in this highly competitive market with this tiny team," says Randa. "Our projections are for a massive amount of growth in the next three years, complete profitability next year, and moving on to many millions of dollars coming into the company."
And the vision extends all the way to the Moon -- and beyond. "We have grandiose and very expensive goals, like a private Moon base -- building one for the company that would be both a tourist destination and scientific research station. We would also use our rockets as a transportation system between Earth and the Moon. These have always been built with the idea of carrying cargo and people, and again not tethered to Earth orbit, but beyond Earth orbit -- thus interorbital."
Challenges: "Bandwidth," says Randa. "Everybody has to do what's at hand."
Another barrier: "A lot of people don't understand the elegant simplicity of the system," she notes. "We've so radically simplified the rocket that sometimes people can't understand what we've done."
Opportunities: "We're now getting into more of the government side of the market," says Randa. "We just sealed a strategic partnership with a company called Avantus Federal."
"We're pretty well-cemented in the academic and commercial sectors, and we wanted to go into the defense and military sector. That seems to be happening -- we have a lot of interest from the Air Force and interest from other entities, some major aerospace companies. This is another tier of customers we didn't have before."
Then there's the aforementioned lunar play. "I see the Moon being really hot as a destination for people, and also mining and robotic work as well," she says. "There's an entire solar system out there."
Needs: Capital, says Randa. "We're self-funded. We work on a very austere budget."
But that could soon change. While Interorbital has avoided venture capital in the past, she says the company is now "somewhat open" to it. "We're in the middle of a $10 million raise right now to build a new building and a robotic rocket factory," says Randa. "More cash is always needed. Rocket companies are extravagantly expensive."