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Stoke Space Aims for Holy Grail of a Fully Reusable Launch Vehicle

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
May 19, 2023
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Stoke Space Aims for Holy Grail of a Fully Reusable Launch Vehicle
Hot fire of Stoke Space’s 30 second stage thrusters.
Image credit: Stoke Space.

SpaceX’s first attempt to launch its Starship (the company’s Super Heavy launch vehicle) ended with a spectacular explosion over the Gulf of Mexico last month. While the enormous worldwide attention that the Starship project and its recent test launch garnered might have rendered Starship synonymous with the concept of a Super Heavy in the minds of some, a small startup in the Pacific Northwest named Stoke Space is also pursuing a fully reusable launch vehicle designed for rapid turnaround, but with a different design.

Stoke Space’s as-yet-unnamed medium-lift launch vehicle would have a reusable first stage powered by seven liquid natural gas/liquid oxygen engines. The stage would be capable of landing back at its launch site or a location downrange in a manner similar to the way SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy first stages are recovered for reuse.

Stock Space's two-stage launcher is designed for reuse and rapid turnaround
Launch vehicle. Image credit: Stoke Space.

Stoke’s major innovation comes with its reusable liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen-powered second stage. Instead of using a single engine as many upper stages do, the stage will feature 30 thrusters located on the perimeter of a metal heat shield. It will also feature clamshell-like payload fairings that would open to release satellites. However, unlike single-use rockets, the fairings would remain attached to the rocket instead of being jettisoned so that they could operate multiple times.

Stoke Space second stage maneuvers in space using 30 thrusters
Stoke Space’s second stage maneuvers in orbit using 30 thrusters. Image credit: Stoke Space.,

Space vehicles returning to Earth are typically protected in one of two ways. SpaceX’s Dragon and Russia’s Soyuz capsules use ablative heat shields that are gradually burned away by the heat of reentry. Starship and NASA’s space shuttle are equipped with silicon-based tiles that insulate the vehicles from intense heat.

Stoke Space will use the reentry heat as an asset. Super cold cryogenic propellant will flow through the second stage’s heat shield and, as the propellant heats up, it will flow through a turbine that will power a pump that will keep the cryogenic propellant flowing. The second stage will then land back on Earth using the 30 thrusters and landing legs to break its fall.

Stoke Space has primarily focused on developing and testing the second-stage propulsion system at a site near the company’s headquarters in Kent, Washington. The company’s next step is to use a Hopper vehicle to test the system in flight. SpaceX used a similar method when it was experimenting with how to land Falcon 9 first stages.

CEO Andy Lapsa, who previously spent more than a decade at Blue Origin, has said that the company is aiming for a maiden flight of the launch vehicle in 2025.

Stoke Space has raised $76.2 million through funding rounds and government grants, according to Crunchbase.

NASA has provided two grants totaling $874,900 to fund the development of Stoke Space’s technology. The company also received $1.225 million in grants from the National Science Foundation.

Stoke Space has been steadily expanding since its founding and now has more than 80 employees, a spokeswoman said.

The company also recently began selling a software tool named Fusion that allows hardware companies to track the design, testing, and integration of parts. The software optimizes simple inventory transactions and parts organization.

In March, the U.S. Space Force granted Stoke Space the right to use the historic Space Launch Complex 14 (SLC-14) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. It was from SLC-45 that John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth when his Freedom 7 spacecraft was blasted into space by an Atlas booster on Feb. 20, 1962.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. And we’re beyond humbled by the historic significance of LC-14,” Lapsa said. “The opportunity to reactivate this site is a profound responsibility that our entire team holds in the highest regard. As we bring LC-14 back to life and carry its legacy into the future, we will be sure to do so in a way that preserves its existing history and pays homage to those who came before us.”

NASA’s first orbital mission produced a history space capsule that ended up in a museum after a single flight and a national hero who would go on to serve in the U.S. Senate. The booster that made it all possible sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, never to be put on display and admired by the masses.

Stoke Space’s rocket might eventually end up in a museum. But, if the company succeeds, that will happen only after it has launched many times.

2 responses to “Stoke Space Aims for Holy Grail of a Fully Reusable Launch Vehicle”

  1. lopan says:

    My only criticism for Stoke is going hydrogen. I get the reasoning to do that eventually, but right up front? It’s a massive, massive PITA.

  2. Robert G. Oler says:

    good luck at least there is some innovation there

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