The goal of Stoke Space is to build a rapidly reusable rocket with a completely new design

The goal of Stoke Space is to build a rapidly reusable rocket with a completely new design
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Stoke Space is testing 15 engines that will fly on the upper stage of a fully reusable rocket.
Enlarge / Stoke Space is testing 15 engines that will fly on the upper stage of a fully reusable rocket.

Stoke room

Andy Lapsa attended the best aerospace engineering schools. He then worked very hard to advance the development of some of the most advanced rocket engines in the world at Blue Origin. But in 2019, after a decade in the industry, he felt the future of spaceflight he envisioned — rapidly reusable rockets — wasn’t much closer.

“It’s the inevitable end-point,” he said of low-cost rockets that can take off, land and fly again the next day. “It will happen. It’s just a question of who does it and when they do it.”

His vision for the future is not unique. It happens to be shared by two of the richest people in the world, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Lapsa worked for one of them, first helping Bezos develop the powerful BE-4 engine, and then as director of Blue Origin’s BE-3 program.

“I love Jeff’s vision for space,” Lapsa said in an interview with Ars. “I’ve worked closely with him on various projects for a while, and I’m basically 100 percent on board with the vision. Beyond that, I think I’d just say I’ll let her execution story speak for itself, and I thought we could move faster.”

It’s a polite way of saying that the company still hasn’t hit orbit more than two decades after Bezos founded Blue Origin. Three years ago, Lapsa, who is in his late 30s, and Tom Feldman, another local rocket scientist who had just turned 30, started looking for a place to make things happen faster. They were driven not so much by a mid-life crisis as by a desire to advance the era of inexpensive, regular access to space and the future that might open up for humanity.

Look around

The two propulsion engineers looked around the US industry, which consisted of dozens of rocket companies. One of her friends, a former Blue Origin engineer named Tim Ellis, co-founded a Los Angeles-based company called Relativity Space in 2016. R rocket, a medium-lift, fully reusable rocket. Lapsa and Feldman also weren’t that optimistic about additive manufacturing or the limitations of 3D printing an entire rocket.

“I think additive manufacturing a full rocket is novel, but you want to choose the tooling for production that makes sense and you want to let the best answer win,” Lapsa said. “And I think their approach was a little too single-minded.”

Andy Lapsa.

Stoke room

Finally, they considered SpaceX. Lapsa said he and Feldman were looking for three key ingredients in a company: fast, reusable rockets; the right engineering team; and a history of “habitual execution”. SpaceX pretty much had it all, with the company’s main focus being the revolutionary, reusable Starship rocket. It boasted arguably the largest and most talented team of rocket engineers in the world, and no one flew more or more stunningly.

And yet it wasn’t for her.

“They undoubtedly have an amazing history of doing awesome things that have absolutely transformed our industry,” said Lapsa. “But I think there is room for a different corporate style. We talk a lot to people who come out of SpaceX after three, five, 10, 15 years and they’re just shells of their old selves. They’re burned out.”

So, in late 2019, Lapsa and Feldman decided to start their own company, Stoke Space. None had any experience of raising money or running a business. They had no plan or specific design in mind for their rocket. Rather, they firmly believed that the future they wanted wasn’t coming—but it was there to take.

“We took a leap of faith and jumped off a cliff,” Lapsa said.

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