At an airport in Eastern Washington on Sunday, small startup Stoke Space took off with its upper stage for the first time.
Admittedly, the flight was relatively modest. The second stage rocket only rose to a height of about 30 feet (9 meters) and flew only a few feet out of range. The entire flight was completed in 15 seconds.
And yet it was a significant move for Stoke Space, which is less than 4 years old and only has about 90 employees. The test successfully demonstrated the performance of the company’s oxy-hydrogen engine, which is based on a ring of 30 nozzles; the ability to throttle this engine and its thrust vector control system; as well as vehicle avionics, software and ground systems.
“It was a tiny little bunny hop,” Stoke Space co-founder Andy Lapsa told Ars in an interview. “But that was the icing on the cake. It was great to get that belt notch.”
New, second stage
This hopper vehicle lacked the payload fairing, but is otherwise similar to the planned Stoke rocket upper stage, measuring 13 feet (4 meters) in diameter and standing 20 feet (6 meters) tall. This was the second hopper prototype built by Stoke. The first was lost in the spring during testing.
Stoke Space intends to fly back to Earth for its second stage and land vertically after launch. Accordingly, the upper stage has a new engine design – a ring of 30 jets instead of a single jet engine – to ensure that the vehicle can safely travel through the vacuum of space as well as the denser atmosphere near the surface. Earth. This phase was the more complex and novel element of the rocket’s design, so this is where Lapsa and the small Stoke team began their efforts.
Having achieved all of its technical milestones with the upper stage, Lapsa said the company will now focus on developing a more traditional first stage for its as-yet-unnamed rocket. Lapsa said Stoke engineers are already developing a full-flow, staged combustion rocket engine for the first stage. Seven of them will power the booster. These engines are already undergoing component testing.
Lapsa said the company is working to debut the Stoke rocket in 2025, though he added that “there are some interesting opportunities to fly earlier.”
From there to orbit
Stoke Space was assigned the use of Launch Complex 14 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. John Glenn took off from this historic platform in 1962 and became the first American to reach orbit. The renovation of the place requires a considerable amount of work, since its last launch came in 1966.
The company is interesting to watch because by the end of 2020 it consisted of only Lapsa and his co-founder Tom Feldman. Both were propulsion engineers at Blue Origin and believed the company was not moving fast enough. In the past three years, they and their team have moved rapidly to the point where they have an operational second stage capable of short flight.
“I love Jeff’s vision of the universe,” Lapsa told Ars in an interview last year. “I’ve worked closely with him on various projects for a while and I’m basically 100 percent on board with that vision.” Other than that, I guess I’d say I’ll let their execution history speak for itself and I thought we could move more quickly.’
A small rocket designed to carry up to 7 metric tons into low Earth orbit is a long way from that jump to orbital flight. But it seems likely that, assuming SpaceX can get its Starship vehicle up and running, Stoke Space has the opportunity to become the second company to build a fully reusable rocket. And no company started with this unique goal for its first rocket.