Inside SpinLaunch, the Space Industry’s Best Kept Secret

Last summer, a secretive space company took up residence in a massive warehouse in the sun-soaked industrial neighborhood that surrounds Long Beach Airport. Reflections of turboprop planes flit across the building’s mirrored panes. Across the street a retro McDonnell Douglas sign perches above the aerospace giant’s former factory, and just around the corner Virgin Orbit is developing air-launched rockets .It’s a fitting headquarters for SpinLaunch, a company breathing new life into the decades-old idea of using giant mechanical slings to hurl rockets into orbit. The man behind this audacious plan is the serial entrepreneur Jonathan Yaney. For years he ran SpinLaunch out of a former microprocessor plant in Silicon Valley, down the road from Google. Now the company is ready to open a proper rocket factory, where it will churn out launch vehicles and, if all goes well, take its first steps into the cosmos.
When I visited this past fall, SpinLaunch employees were still unpacking from the move. As we walked among giant sheets of steel, Yaney explained how his launcher will work. A centrifuge large enough to contain a football field will whip a rocket around in circles for roughly an hour, its speed steadily ramping up to more than 5,000 mph. The vehicle and its payload—up to 200 pounds’ worth of satellite—will experience forces that, at their peak, will be ten thousand times stronger than gravity. Once it’s spinning at launch speed, the centrifuge will release the rocket and send it screaming into the stratosphere. At the threshold of the cosmos, it will fire its engine for a final nudge into orbit.

Courtesy of SpinLaunch
The idea that an object weighing thousands of pounds can punch its way into space after spinning in circles on Earth’s surface can be hard to fathom. It might even sound crazy, and the company has a lot to prove to shake its critics. So far it has managed to spin an 11-pound dummy payload at more than 4,000 mph and send it crashing into a steel wall. Between those tests and the edge of space, however, are roughly a hundred miles and a whole lot of air resistance. Never mind the engineering work needed to build a centrifuge 100 yards wide, with an arm strong enough to support a roughly SUV-sized rocket.
Yaney hopes this is the year he achieves vindication. The company plans to conduct its first suborbital launches this winter at a new test site in New Mexico. Assuming the system works, Spinlaunch promises to reduce the cost of sending small satellites into space by a factor of almost 20. But the bigger deal may be its launch cadence. Yaney predicts the mass accelerator will be able to do five launches a day; most rocket companies can’t do that many launches in a month. In the era of mega-satellite constellations, which will see thousands of small satellites sent to low Earth orbit over the next decade, Yaney believes Spinlaunch’s time has come.

Four Million Bucks and a Crazy Idea

Like so many space entrepreneurs, Yaney has been obsessed with the cosmos all his life. But it took until 2014 for him to try to turn his passion into a career. He was working at Titan Aerospace, a solar-powered drone startup founded by his brother Maximus, when Google decided to acquire it. As he contemplated what to do next, Yaney’s mind turned again and again to a Cold War military project called HARP, in which the United States Army used a giant gun to shoot projectiles into space. HARP proved it was possible to get to space without a rocket, so Yaney set out to build a kinetic launch system of his own. He cobbled together a working proof of concept, essentially a motorized sling that could spin a bullet-sized projectile up to hypersonic speeds. He took it to a few angel investors and secured a small amount of funding.