“We basically introduced public transportation to space” – Czech company’s innovative dispenser set to premiere at this week’s European Vega rocket launch

Photo: Archive SAB Aerospace

This Sunday will likely see the launch of the European Space Agency’s [ESA] Vega rocket into space. On board will be 53 individual satellites, a huge increase to the number Vega could previously carry. The increase in capacity is very much thanks to a Czech project led by the company SAB Aerospace, which revolutionised the rocket’s dispenser that carries the satellites. The project has already been twice delayed and was rescheduled from Friday to Sunday this week. I spoke to SAB Aerospace CEO Petr Kapoun about the importance of the project and began by asking him how he is feeling ahead of the launch.

Petr Kapoun | Photo: SAB Aerospace

“To be honest it is quite terrible. The first postponement came last year due to the failure of the previous launch and then we waited many months for the investigation into the issues that caused it. It wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t good either.

“Now, this two day postponement is even worse than the one the year before, because everything was ready. You get the first postponement, then a second one and after a year every day counts. It is painful.

“However, it is understandable of course. When you look into the past the Vega launches were postponed quite regularly, but not after two previous postponements. It is hard to plan everything, then to postpone and to reschedule it all. Of course it is a big headache. You just want to see the launch and go to sleep.”

Why was the launch postponed this time?

“This time it was due to the weather. Not the weather on the surface, but in the upper part of the atmosphere. There are strong winds up there. For the small VEGA launcher it is really critical, because the trajectory of the rocket could be moved by the strong wind. So it is not the weather on the earth’s surface, but about 100km above.”

“Public transport” to space

Photo: Archive SAB Aerospace

You have contributed to this rocket launch through a so-called dispenser. Could you explain what it is?

“Sure. For now, I would keep away from the technical details. It is quite revolutionary also due to the materials and technical improvements though.

“To understand the improvement, imagine the dispenser as a public transport vehicle. Imagine that Vega was a private car and you needed to go to space. It is quite costly to drive your own car there or borrow the car. What we did is that we used the Vega potential and we created a sort of public bus. We basically introduced public transportation to space, if you get my point.

“Now it is not one or two private customers that can buy a place on the Vega transport, but 53. For the next launches we can go up to 100, depending on the size of the satellites on board, because our hardware is quite variable. We can launch 16 satellites, or we can launch a 100. It is modular. The cost of the Vega launch is still the same, but the cost is now divided between many more customers who can use the satellite.

“We changed the way how you access space by lowering the price, but also by shortening the time.”

“We changed the way how you access space by lowering the price, but also by shortening the time. This is because we do not only offer the device, but also the launch campaign. The latter means that if you have your own small satellite, and by the way we have customers who are doing it, you simply have to bring it. We do the paperwork and install this satellite directly onto the our dispenser device here in Brno, so you do not even have to go to the launch base in French Guyana. We put it on the launcher directly in Brno and then send it on, one week prior to the launch, to Guyana. This whole process takes eight weeks.

Photo: Archive SAB Aerospace

“So basically, it really is like a public transport. You travel from one place to another, buy a ticket and very soon after that, within a week, you travel. That is the revolutionary thing.”

I wanted to ask, since you were saying it is revolutionary, is it revolutionary in an international context, or just within the European space program?

“You are right. When I say revolutionary, I am talking in the European context. Everyone knows that there is a US company, which is doing a similar thing, but in a different way. I mean revolutionary in terms of the European space program.”

Photo: Archive SAB Aerospace

You said you do not want to delve into the technicalities and I understand that. However, would you mind just a slight dive into that direction to explain how your dispenser is different from the other revolutionary dispensers?

“Well, first of all it revolutionary in terms of modularity. We have seven different configurations, so we can really accommodate different sizes of satellites and combine them together. There could be a satellite that weighs up to 500kg or one that weighs 2kg. We can combine them together to fill in as much space as possible and that is how we rate the number and accommodate different customers.

Photo: Archive SAB Aerospace

“Incidentally, that is also how we shorten the time, by being able to accommodate different customers and different sizes, we can fly after eight weeks. That was the point.

“From the technical side, 80 percent of this structure is made up of composite carbon fibre, so it is very light, but stiff. The truth is that the whole device weighs only 252kg, but it can carry up to 1.5 tons. It was a combination between this carbon fibre, CFRP panels and aluminium.

“When we started the device was twice as big. However, we really pushed it to its limits, identified relevant points and that is why it doesn’t take up much space now. Basically, we cut the VEGA carry limit up the minimum, so our device does not take up much [weight and space] and we can offer it to additional satellites.”

Photo: Archive SAB Aerospace

Is this innovation something that SAB Aerospace came up with or are you adopting a design from some engineer?

“It was our idea. There was a paper sketch in 2014. Then we did some preliminary designs in 3D and pitched it to the ESA, which decided to come up with the project. Thankfully, the Czech Republic decided to be part of the VEGA programme which is why this project could happen.

“So yes, the original idea came from us, but the of course you need the ESA to take it on as their initiative, because to do this on our own it would not be possible.

“To be precise it was seven companies working on this project, all of them from the Czech Republic and most of them from South Moravia. So it really is a Czech handmade product. By handmade i really mean made by hand, because you have to ensure all of the screws have been tightened properly. There is no room for error.”

Working in the Czech space industry

Photo: Archive SAB Aerospace

That is very interesting, because I remember I recently heard there is a Moravian aerospace cluster in the Czech Republic. It is connected to the manufacturing of light aircraft, but I was wondering if these companies are also active in the space sector?

“Yeah, I mean most of the manufacturing companies working with us come from the aircraft industry field. However, there were a few already working in the space sector.

“The Czech Republic has already been a member of ESA for 12 years, so it wasn’t really difficult to find good partners. We just made a step forward from aircraft and basic space programmes towards a complete structure. That is also important. We did not just deliver some parts, like electronics or software, but everything, including the satellites.”

Photo: Archive SAB Aerospace

The space industry does sound like a very exciting and growing business in the Czech Republic. What is it like to work in it?

“It is exciting. I mean, one part of you knows that it is difficult, but that is good. There are lots of difficulties: technical, program related, political, etc. It is not easy, but you can always figure out the way forward.

“I would say the most difficult thing is to keep going sometimes and not give up, because it can be hard sometimes. However, you can overcome this quite easily actually, because when you work in the space sector everything is exciting and difficulties can be overcome.

“As the Czech Republic, we have a really good technical background, both in terms of university specialisation and in the multitude of technical companies located here. We also have a very strong history in the aircraft industry.”

“Furthermore, as the Czech Republic, we have a really good technical background, whether we are talking about universities or the multitude of technical companies. We also have a very strong history in the aircraft industry and space. It is just the next level.

“We had a solid base, now we already have it in us to be a major player in the European space program and we are becoming one. We are part of Vega, of Ariane, the second European launcher, and there are more and more projects. When we started five years ago, this project had the same budget as the overall Czech space budget. Now the space budget is six times bigger and projects such as ours are regular for Czech companies. That is a lot of progress in just five years in my opinion.”

Not just about the Czech flag

Photo: Archive SAB Aerospace

This is the first time that a Czech flag will be on displayed on the Vega rocket, one of the consequences of you success. Only countries which supply components have that right if I am correct. Is this just an aesthetic addition, or does it bring any greater value, for example when it comes to decisions about the project and so on?

“Actually it has great value behind it. It is not just about the flag on the rocket. Yes, each country which contributes to the launcher development or delivers a major product to the launcher has the right to put its flag on it. This is a tradition.

“The Czech Republic is the seventh country to become part of the launcher board [of the ESA]. Being a part of the board is a huge political step forward, because it is the authority that decides who can access space.”

“However, the point is that when you join the programme you become part of the launcher board. The Czech Republic is the seventh country part to become a part of the launcher board. Being a part of the board is a huge political step forward, because the launcher board is the authority that decides who can access space [within the ESA].

“It means that the launcher board has the right to refuse, or consider each satellite and what will be the purpose of the rocket launch and where it will fly. This is huge, because now we have at least one vote in the decision of who can access space. That is major.”

Just give me a practical idea of what that means. How could the Czech Republic use that?

VEGA rocket,  photo: Archive SAB Aerospace

“Imagine there is a university, or it could be a defence programme run by our Ministry of Defence and the other countries argue that they have their own satellites and want them to be launched first and you will be in the queue for the next three years.

“Normally, we would have to wait. However, since we are on the launcher board, we can say: ‘Ok, if you want to launch your satellite, the next one will be ours’, very generally speaking of course.”

As someone who works in this business, could you tell us how the ESA compares to countries with larger space programmes, such as the United States?

“There many great things done in Europe, but we don’t know how to sell them to the public, to the people. That is the difference between us and NASA.”

“I would say that the ESA is really good with the research programmes. We also have two reliable space launchers. Vega had a failure last year, but that was the only failure in 15 launches, so it is basically the most reliable launcher in the world, I would say.

“One thing perhaps is that we are a little bit behind in terms of marketing. There many great things which are done in Europe, but we don’t know how to sell them to the public, to the people. That is the difference between us and NASA. Yes, of course it is in the budget as well, but it is not true that we do not do amazing projects here. The problem is that we do not know how to sell it and that is a pity. But that is changing as well.”