The most famous space companies reaching a new level of technology and developing reusable vehicles are located in the United States. Nevertheless, Europe is trying to keep up and present its competitors to such well-known giants as SpaceX. PLD Space is one of them as it intends to become the first space company in Europe that create reusable space launch vehicles.
A Short History of the Company
Raúl Torres, Raúl Verdú, and José Enrique Martínez founded the company originally named Payload Aerospace in 2011. In 2010, recent graduates won a competition from the Polytechnic University of Valencia for “Best Innovative Project and Best Business Plan,” receiving a $ 65.17 thousand grant. The future founders used this grant, their personal funds, and money from the Science Park of the University of Miguel Hernandez in Elche as the start-up capital. Additionally, the current COO and one of the competition organizers, Juny Crespo, most likely, were among the first investors, but this information has not been disclosed.
Initially, Payload Aerospace was not involved in the development of reusable launch vehicles but was engaged in other projects supported by government grants and contracts. As such, one of the earliest products was the Raptor meteorological suborbital launch vehicle. The company also created UALab, a space exploration platform for atmospheric research at an altitude of 40 km, and the Teide-1A engine that propelled it. The development of the reusable launcher prototype was also laid by the grand. In 2013, the Center for Industrial Technological Development (CDTI) allocated $ 239.4 thousand to develop suborbital launch vehicles for CubeSats.
A Long Way of Funding and Its Reasons
Although grants helped PLD Space stay in the industry, it took a long time to complete its major funding rounds. At a presentation in 2018, the founders revealed their intention to close a Series B round in 2019. However, only in December 2019, a Series A round worth €17 million was completed. Eventually, the Series B round was closed just in the last days of 2021 with an amount of €28 million. Perhaps such delays were justified by rather large sums, but it is more likely that investors were in no hurry to give up their money, looking at the company’s past failures and missed deadlines.
PLD Space’s two main developing products, Miura 1 and Miura 5, have already encountered challenges threatening their existence several times. It is not so easy to note at first glance, since until 2018, they were named Arion 1 and Arion 2. The engineering of Arion 1, a suborbital launch vehicle, started in 2013 and has changed its structure several times since then. For example, after a review in 2018, the number of stages and engines has been cut to one. Arion 2 also went through several modifications, reducing the number of stages and increasing the number of engines. This fact shows that the company needed at least five years to figure out the main elements of vehicles structure.
According to the official version, rebranding was necessary to avoid confusion with the other Ariane launch vehicle. However, it is more likely that PLD Space simply wanted to deflect attention from past delays and failures. If one looks only at the history of Miura after the rebranding, PLD Spaces are doing pretty well. Although the Miura 1 engine test ended in an explosion in early 2019, the engineers quickly corrected the errors and successfully tested the TEPREL-B engine in 2020. In addition, in April 2019, the company conducted a successful drop test of the demonstrator of the first stage of Miura 5, and as a result, received a €1 million contract from ESA.
However, if one studies the whole history, the delays in investing become clear. For example, the first launch of Arion 1 / Miura 1 was planned back in 2018 but was prolonged several times and is scheduled for the second half of 2022. The launch of Arion 2 / Miura 5 has also been postponed many times, and the original launch date has moved from 2019 to 2024.
Probably the main reasons for such delays and test failures are management problems and loss of staff. In 2019, 14 employees quit the company, including 11 engineers, Payload Manager, Finance Advisor, and Head of Manufacturing. A year earlier, representatives of Coves Selva S.L., Nalani Investments, Malocu Inversiones S.L., and Vimar Capital have also left the advisory board. Judging by the feedback from former employees, such a massive loss of specialists is not surprising, since the founders’ management is far from ideal. One of the ex-employees complains about constant meddling in engineering processes that interfere with the productive work of the team. Another engineer speaks of a toxic atmosphere and terrible work organization that makes it impossible to meet deadlines. Such chaotic management also perfectly explains the constant rescheduling of deadlines.
The Current Situation
Nevertheless, the rebranding appears to have contributed to the company’s success. By 2022, PLD Space has raised over 50 million in investments, signed agreements on the use of Miura with such organizations as HISPASAT (2020) and ESA (2021), and received a subordinated loan for 2 million euros from The Valencian Institute of Finances. The final question remains the same: whether launches of the Miura-2 and Miura-5 will be postponed again, or PLD Space will finally achieve its goals of becoming the first European developer of reusable launch vehicles.