Hypersonic Heats Up: CEO Joe Laurienti on the Success of Ursa Major’s 3D Printed Engine

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“It’s only been about 24 hours now, so I’m still digesting it,” Joe Laurienti said. But even via Zoom, it was easy to notice that the CEO was satisfied. The day before, Ursa Major’s 3D printed liquid propulsion engine had successfully launched on its first test flight. The Hadley engine powered a Stratolaunch Talon-A1 (TA-1) testbed, with the TA-1 nearing hypersonic (Mach 5) speeds over the Pacific Ocean:

“There were a number of firsts,” Laurienti noted, “but the one that has stuck with me is that in all of this new space, new aerospace, new defense activity, a big mission like this is not only expected to fail on its first try — it’s usually expected to fail because of propulsion. We’ve seen many private space companies making great efforts with 3D printing, but their approach to propulsion, specifically, results in high-risk first missions.”

The Hadley engine on the manufacturing floor at Ursa Major

Ursa Major is unique insofar as it’s one of the only companies that focuses exclusively on producing rocket engines with additive manufacturing (AM) and other advanced manufacturing techniques. This allowed the firm to develop and rapidly build systems like the 5,000-pound-thrust, reusable Hadley. According to Laurienti, AM is indispensable to the company’s philosophy of homing in on singular objectives until they’re perfected:

“Our model of ‘let’s really leverage 3D printing and advanced manufacturing to focus on propulsion and then partner with a company that’s trying to advance a mission that’s never been done before’ resulted — surprisingly, perhaps — in success on the first go. In addition to our dedication to propulsion, I think the driver behind that was that 3D printing enabled a lot of repetitions. We have a lot of cycles,” Laurienti said. “We’ve printed 2,500 parts that have been integrated into engines and hot fire tests on the ground. So, success on a first launch feels like a nice shift into preparation for our next mission.”

The timing couldn’t have worked out better for Ursa. In the last few months, the company has started to attract serious attention from the Pentagon — and in turn, mainstream media sources — for its solid rocket motor (SRM) capabilities. As I argued in a recent article, it isn’t just the end product involved, but rather in Ursa Major’s entire business model that the Department of Defense (DoD) has its eye on. Laurienti agreed that the company owes its continuous forward momentum to innovation throughout all of its aspects, from the technical to the economic:

“Being able to say we made that leap from Technology Readiness Level [TRL] eight to TRL nine, meaning we’ve actually flown hardware, was a big deal. Our success is really dependent on three things. It’s the technology, meaning that we went and 3D printed new materials, and were able to build the process enabling us to validate those materials here on the ground through analysis and iterations. That leads directly to number two, the methodology: the sheer amount of testing and the type of testing that we did. Lastly, it’s the business model, and I think our success will shine the light on us and others like us that are focused on propulsion, and on achieving breakthroughs by using technologies that the primes probably wouldn’t grab right away, which will ultimately allow us to partner with those primes to push new tech into flight.”

While all of Ursa Major’s strengths were on display in its successful test flight with Stratolaunch, it would be hard to argue that the Hadley isn’t primarily a technological achievement. First off, there are many different types of aerospace engines, varying mainly in terms of the types of propellants used. “Fuels” in the engines combine with “oxidizers,” which yields the combustion that results in flight. The private sector-driven R&D in the latest generation of spacecraft has heavily accelerated progress in “staged combustion” engines, which refers to how the propellants used are burned in stages via multiple chambers.

Stratolaunch’s Talon-A1 prepares for flight powered by Ursa Major’s Hadley engine.

Staged combustion engines are rare enough, thanks to the complexity involved, but oxidizer-rich staged combustion engines — in which a small amount of fuel is combined with a much higher proportion of oxidizer — are almost unheard of. In fact, prior to the Hadley’s successful test flight on Saturday, March 9, 2024, only Russian engine-makers had ever developed oxidizer-rich staged combustion engines. Now, space race milestones are always inevitably compared to Sputnik. But the comparison seems particularly apt in this case, so I felt compelled to ask Laurienti if he thought that, from the perspective of the U.S.’s strategic competition, the success of Stratolaunch-Ursa Major must feel like an inverted Sputnik moment:

“Absolutely,” Laurienti said with a grin. “This is a private company in Stratolaunch, partnering with a private company in Ursa Major, to field a hypersonic vehicle with a reusable engine. Somebody yesterday pointed out to me, it took NASA four flights to get to the velocities we reached with the test [on March 9th]. So this is very much a Sputnik moment for private industry, where we’re taking a lot of risk with a very different approach, and advancing a mission that’s never been done before.”

Ursa Major has put itself in a position where it is now faced with what can fairly be described as “a good problem to have”: clearly, the company has set a high bar for its next phase of activity. Laurienti is certainly mindful of exactly how high the bar has been raised, but all indications suggest that he only views this as an exciting challenge to have the opportunity to tackle:

“I don’t look at so much in terms of what do we have to do next time to beat what we’ve already done — more so in terms of, how much further can we push it?” Laurienti explained. “We’re more and more excited about in-space operations, for instance. We have engines that were designed to be upper-stage engines for satellite orbit injection. What happens beyond that? Lower orbit is very well-serviced by SpaceX and others. Geostationary orbit can be met with some national security payloads, at a high cost. But there’s so many possibilities outside of those extremes, and they all require propulsion.

“Another thing I’ll say very candidly that we’re not working on yet, but which is front of mind for me: drone programs. Undersecretary Hicks’ Replicator initiative, the Air Force’s CCA [Collaborative Combat Aircraft] program — these are missions that are expecting and requiring thousands of drones across many different classes over the next five to ten years. Where is the propulsion going to come from? The U.S. is not used to making new propulsion systems, especially propulsion systems that only need to operate minutes at a time for un-piloted aircraft. So, this isn’t something Ursa Major has experience in, but we’re a propulsion company, and the need there is dramatic.”

The last ten years of the buildup of commercial space capabilities has been dominated by companies like SpaceX. Over the next ten years, companies like Ursa Major look poised to level the playing field.

Images courtesy of Ursa Major

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