By Eric Peterson | Jan 30, 2023
Laurienti started his career in rocket propulsion at SpaceX working on the Dragon and Falcon systems, then moved to Blue Origin and worked on the BE-3 Engine for the New Shepard vehicle.
While he looks back at both gigs fondly, Laurienti says he saw an opportunity to focus solely on rocket propulsion with Ursa Major Technologies. "Trying to build a SpaceX felt myopic," says Laurienti. "It felt like we were going to have an industry of first movers and also-rans."
"I got really excited about this idea that we could be one of the first companies to really build a transformation in the ecosystem," he continues. "SpaceX reminds me of IBM. They built a mainframe here. Out of that, we didn't see another 20 mainframe companies go and succeed, we saw Intel and Nvidia provide for Apple, HP, Dell, Compaq. The ecosystem was much more complex than just a first mover."
Thus Ursa Major's stated business model is manufacturing "higher performing engines, more of them, delivered quickly at less than half the cost," according to Laurienti.
The model has gained serious traction since the company's founding in 2015. After raising more than $100 million in 2021, the company roughly doubled its head count from 125 employees to 250 in 2022. "It was a fun year," says Laurienti. "We were really investing heavily in growing the team, building out the foundations of what we need for production and development here."
That means 2023 "is all about scaling and flying," says Laurienti. "We really set out to build an engine for the masses, so I think we've got a pretty exciting year in front of us."
The first oxygen-rich, staged combustion rocket engine from a U.S. manufacturer, the reusable Hadley is Ursa Major's first product to hit the market. After building 20 Hadley engines in 2022, Ursa Major will deliver about 40 in 2022, says Laurienti, to such customers as Arizona-based satellite maker Phantom Space and the U.S. Air Force.
Hadleys will propel several launches in the first half of the year, he adds, including one that has been publicly announced with Stratolaunch. "We have three different customers planning to fly this year, so it will be the first time a rocket engine has flown on three different rockets in its maiden year, which is really exciting," says Laurienti.
Ursa Major is slated to debut a new model in the Ripley in 2024. The Ripley will have 50,000 pounds of thrust, a 10X jump from the Hadley's 5,000.
The engines' names are inspired by sci-fi classics: The Hadley is named for the family in Ray Bradbury's short story, "The Veldt," and Ripley is Sigourney Weaver's character in the Alien movies. Also in development, the Arroway engine shares its name with Jodie Foster's character in Contact.
Located on a 90-acre campus in Berthoud, Ursa Major's 60,000-square-foot factory is focused on research and development, with the test facilities for the engines just 120 yards away. Production is outsourced to dozens of contract partners across the U.S. Vendors use commercially available machines from Velo3D, EOS, Desktop Metal, and other companies in production.
"We have a very deep and healthy supply chain, where we have a couple of key partners that do a lot of our production work for us," says Laurienti. "3D printing is such a novel, nascent technology. We didn't want to invest in capex and then it gets obsolete, and we'd have to go invest in capex again."
The focus on R&D in Berthoud allows for agility, he adds. "If we change a design or we change a process, we like to build the first articles internally. That really allows us to build stronger partnerships with our supply chain, where if we have all of the documentation and process around that manufacturing, it saves just a ton of heartache."
While 3D printing allows Ursa Major to reduce part counts, Laurienti says that's not the end-all, be-all for the technique. "To us, additive manufacturing enables process count reduction. One of our key components on one of our rocket engines, traditionally manufactured, might look like three castings and 10 forgings that are precision machined, sourced from different vendors, inspected after sourcing, welded, brazed, inspected in between, just this huge process chain. If we can 3D-print a single monolithic part, your process looks like printing and heat-treating."
Ursa Major's campus in Berthoud provides another benefit: an interface with the public that's not available in the Mojave Desert and other remote rocket sites. "We love giving site tours and having folks come see things here, whether it's a customer or just a group that's excited about space," says Laurienti. "It's just really unique to be able to see firsthand what things felt like in the '60s when NASA was rushing to the Moon. It's still happening very much today."
Challenges: "Capital markets are always a challenge," says Laurienti. "Last year, we saw this shift away from excitement in tech, but defense companies were trading at an all-time high at the end of last year. It's become a challenge in that we have to more clearly explain how we fit into this ecosystem in times when venture capitalists aren't throwing dollars at every tech company that comes their way."
Ursa Major has largely sidestepped the supply chain problems that have plagued other manufacturers in recent years. The company's engines are manufactured largely from nickel-based superalloys -- "pretty easy-to-source, common metallic alloys in the U.S.," says Laurienti. "If you look at one of our engines, 80 to 90 percent of its weight is 3D-printed, so our supply chain is good partners on the service bureau side and metallic powders. It's pretty straightforward."
Opportunities: The global space and defense industries. "Countries that are friendly to the West," says Laurienti. "All of Europe is looking for launch capability. Japan, South Korea, Australia, they're just tremendous, exciting markets right now. These countries are seeking to do what the U.S. has done over the last few years as far as growing the cadence of space access."
Current events have spurred demand for U.S.-made product, he adds. "The U.S. has been a net importer of rocket propulsion. We have bought Russian and Ukrainian propulsion over the years, and Russia and Ukraine are two of the biggest proliferators of propulsion."
Needs: "We always need good talent," says Laurienti. "We may not be doubling the head count, but talent that's excited about space and defense and manufacturing and materials -- all of the things that Ursa is tying together, we always love finding talent that's excited about that."
Ursa Major is also looking to boost its bench of contract manufacturers, he adds. "We're always looking for partners that are excited about creative solutions to historical problems. That's what Ursa does best: We take 40 years of the same propulsion technology and turn it on its head, using 3D printing to push what's possible."