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After the Challenge: Masten Space Systems
Kyle Nyberg of Masten observes the Xombie vehicle on the pad prior to flight test operations. Masten's Kyle Nyberg observes the Xombie vehicle on the pad prior to flight test operations. Xombie won the Level One, second place prize of $150,000 in the 2009 Lunar Lander Challenge. (Masten Space Systems)
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Jonathan Powers of Masten secures Xaero hardware prior to a flight test. Masten's Jonathan Powers secures Xaero hardware prior to a flight test. (Masten Space Systems)
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The Xaero reusable launch vehicle takes off during a free flight test at the Masten facilities in Mojave, Calif. The Xaero reusable launch vehicle takes off during a free flight test at Masten's facilities in Mojave, Calif. (Masten Space Systems)
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Who they are: Masten Space Systems is a Mojave, Calif.-based company that designs, builds, tests and operates reusable launch vehicles for suborbital flights. It is developing a line of vertical takeoff, vertical landing vehicles.

Challenges: 2009 Lunar Lander Challenge

Competition stats: Masten Space Systems won the $1 million first place, level two prize; and the $150,000 second place, level one prize.

For more information: Twitter: @mastenspace; Facebook: Masten Space Systems, Inc.; Blog: http://masten.aero/blog; YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/mastenspace

Masten Space Systems was founded in 2004 by rocket entrepreneur David Masten and a handful of others who shared the goal of lowering the barriers of access to space. The team competed in the 2009 Lunar Lander Challenge, winning both a $1 million and $150,000 prize for different levels of the competition. Centennial Challenges caught up with Masten's Director of Business Development, Colin Ake.

Centennial Challenges: Looking back, how did Masten Space System’s involvement in the Lunar Lander Challenge advance the founding principles of the company?

Colin Ake: Masten wanted to change the way suborbital research was conducted with fully reusable suborbital launch vehicles with vertical takeoff and vertical landing capability. The timing of the Lunar Landing Challenge lined up with technical goals we already needed to achieve in the development of our vehicles, and we decided to pursue the challenge along the way. With a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, we managed to take home the grand prize.

CC: Masten has come a long way since 2009. What has that win and experience done for the company?

CA: When we won the challenge, our only "customer" was the challenge. We had two great rocket vehicles with fantastic guidance and control, but an extremely limited sales funnel. Since the challenge, we've spent significant time building a business around a primary focus on customers. We received multiple awards from NASA to fly suborbital payloads in this time as well as established NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and other major aerospace contractors as customers. Our progress hasn’t been isolated on the business side of things, though. We also reached several technical achievements in our two years since winning the challenge, including:
  • The first in-air relight of an engine on a vertical takeoff, vertical landing vehicle
  • Three demonstration flights with JPL
  • 110 flights on Xaero, our first high-altitude vehicle
  • Flight qualification of Scimitar, our next generation redesign of our current engine
  • First firings on Katana, our 3,000 lbf engine
  • Significant engineering progress on Xeus, an exploration lander concept we hope to turn into a terrestrial demonstrator
  • The development of Stingray, a purpose built entry, descent and landing (EDL) systems test concept
CC: What's the atmosphere at Masten like, and who makes up your staff?

CA: Our workforce is a mix of both seasoned and enthusiastic young professionals, which gives us a good blend of new approaches to old ideas and industry best practices. The work environment is laid back but collaborative, with everybody in a common office to facilitate impromptu conversations and include as many people as possible in design reviews and process developments. The team is tightly knit from spending hundreds of days doing test operations.

CC: What has the company been focusing on recently?

CA: We've been flying our existing vehicles for customers including JPL, NASA and Draper Laboratory. Our development and demonstration of Sensei with our customers is a big step forward for the terrestrial testing of avionics and guidance, navigation and control that will take us back to the moon or to Mars.

We've been also been continuing to develop our suborbital reusable launch vehicles, including development of Xaero (110 flights) and the next version of Xaero, which will be capable of higher altitudes with more payload. This means the further development of our all-aluminum, regeneratively cooled throttleable engines, significant forward progress in autonomous flight safety software, bringing an internal composite shop online, and most of all, putting the focus on our customers.

CC: What projects and products are on the horizon for the future?

CA: We’ll continue to make progress with our reusable suborbital vehicles, while applying our vertical landing precision to helping our customers solve the hard entry, descent and landing problems our nation faces. We’ll also talk more about Xeus, our exploration lander concept that brings more mass to surface and reduces risks inherent in other lander designs.

Providing our launch vehicles as platforms to those looking to demonstrate technology has been a pillar of the last two years, and we expect this business to expand in the future to other clients. We'll demonstrate new propulsion technologies that will make our vehicles faster and more efficient. And we'll continue to test many times a month with new engine firings and ever-expanding test flights.