Stoke Space raises $9.1 million to create a new breed of reusable upper-stage rockets

Alan Boyle
·4 min read
Injector test firing
A second-stage engine injector blazes at Stoke’s component test facility. (Stoke Space Technologies Photo)

Stoke Space Technologies, the Renton, Wash.-based company founded by veterans of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, has attracted $9.1 million in seed investments for extending rocket reusability to new frontiers.

The first goal will be to develop a new kind of reusable upper stage, Stoke co-founder and CEO Andy Lapsa said. “That’s the last domino to fall in the industry before reusability is commonplace,” Lapsa told GeekWire. “Even right now, I think space launch is in a production-limited paradigm.”

Rocket reusability is the watchword, to be sure — not only at Blue Origin, where Lapsa was an award-winning rocket engineer, but also at SpaceX and other leading launch companies.

Both Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have said total reusability is the key to driving down the cost of access to space, and opening up new frontiers including regular runs to Mars and back. Until recently, however, the focus has been on reusing a rocket’s first-stage booster. The upper stage — which kicks in after the first stage is exhausted to push payloads the rest of the way to orbit — typically burns up during atmospheric re-entry at the end of its flight.

SpaceX is aiming to change that paradigm with its Starship super-rocket. The massive prototypes that are currently being tested at that company’s South Texas launch facility are part of a development effort for reusable second stages that would sit on top of an even more massive Super Heavy booster — and fly themselves back to a landing pad after they’ve done their job.

Lapsa said what SpaceX is doing with Starship is “incredible.”

“But I think that same type of mentality needs to be applied to the commercial satellite market, in order to really provide them with what they’re looking for,” he added. “So that’s where we’re starting.”

Andrew Lapsa
During his time at Blue Origin, Andrew Lapsa won the AIAA Liquid Propulsion Young Professional Award in 2017. Now he’s the CEO of his own startup, called Stoke Space. (Blue Origin Photo via Twitter)

The newly announced seed funding round follows up on a series of grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation for technology development.

The round’s co-leaders are NFX and MaC Ventures. Other investors include Y Combinator, Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six venture fund and football great Joe Montana’s Liquid2 Ventures, plus Y Combinator co-founder Trevor Blackwell, Cruise co-founder Kyle Vogt and Katana Capital founder Charlie Songhurst.

Lapsa declined to discuss the technology that Stoke is planning to use for upper-stage reusability, or lay out a development timeline. But with nine employees (plus additional job openings), the company is well beyond the drawing-board stage.

Last month, Stoke signed a five-year lease on a 2.3-acre site at the Port of Moses Lake in central Washington state for an engineering and test facility. Investments from the funding round will go toward developing hardware, including an injector for Stoke’s upper-stage rocket engine.

“If you don’t have a good, high-performing, stable injector in a rocket engine, it’s very hard to build the rest of the system around it,” Lapsa explained. “So that’s the first place to start.”

Lapsa, 38, isn’t the only one at Stoke with experience in engine development. The company’s other co-founder and chief technology officer, Thomas Feldman, designed components for Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine. Other employees are building upon past work at Blue Origin, SpaceX and Seattle-based Spaceflight.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast, an adviser to Stoke, goes so far as to say that the team reminds him of the Wright brothers. “Stoke has the right idea about ultra-low-cost access to space, and similar to the first manned flight, will change the world of transportation and national security forever,” he said.

Stoke doesn’t intend to stop with redesigning upper stages. In Lapsa’s view, setting up an efficient cadence for launches is as important as producing reusable upper stages. “We’re taking a holistic view of the entire launch process,” he said.

Lapsa acknowledged that Stoke is facing plenty of competitors in the rocket business, ranging from United Launch Alliance, SpaceX and Blue Origin to Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, Firefly Aerospace, Astra and many more.

“There are a lot of players in this space, but I think there’s a limit to the [number of] groups that have very deep experience,” he said. “I think there are still a lot of important problems to be solved, and that’s what we’re after.”

The way Lapsa sees it, being in the Seattle area is a big plus, thanks to an aerospace culture that began with Boeing.

“There’s an amazing community forming in Seattle around space,” he said. “You’ve got all kinds of companies, from satellites to rideshare aggregators to rocket manufacturers and everything in between. … It’s a great spot to build a company.”

More from GeekWire: