New Frontier Aerospace aims to zoom from hypersonic flight’s past into its future

New Frontier Aerospace’s chief operating officer, David Gregory (at left), lays his hand on the company’s Mjölnir rocket engine while CEO Bill Bruner strikes what he calls his “Wernher von Braun pose” with a 3D-printed model of the company’s hypersonic rocket ship. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

New Frontier Aerospace’s chief operating officer, David Gregory (at left), lays his hand on the company’s Mjölnir rocket engine while CEO Bill Bruner strikes what he calls his “Wernher von Braun pose” with a 3D-printed model of the company’s hypersonic rocket ship. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

TUKWILA, Wash. — Thirty years after the first flight of a pioneering reusable rocket ship known as the Delta Clipper Experimental, or DC-X, a commercial venture is aiming to bring its legacy to life in the Seattle area. Even its name — New Frontier Aerospace — is a callback to the earlier days of America’s space effort, going back to John F. Kennedy references to outer space as part of his “New Frontier.”

“We’re sort of like the grandson of DC-X,” New Frontier’s co-founder and CEO, Bill “Burners” Bruner, said at the startup’s headquarters in Tukwila.

But he doesn’t see New Frontier as a space launch venture in the strictest sense of the word. “We’re not doing the squat, or cylindrical or conical shapes that we were talking about in those days,” he told GeekWire. “We’re proposing to combine the hypersonic research of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and some of those geometries, with reusable rockets to attack the trillion-dollar air transportation market instead of the $11 billion space launch market.”

New Frontier was founded in 2020 by Bruner, whose aerospace experience includes stint as an assistant administrator at NASA, as a policy director at the Pentagon, and as an Air Force colonel; Jess Sponable, who handled space programs at DARPA and the Air Force Research Laboratory and is now New Frontier’s president and chief technology officer; and chief operating officer David Gregory, a veteran of rocket engine programs at Blue Origin and Ursa Major Technologies. The chairman is Alex Tai, who previously served as Virgin Galactic’s chief operating officer.

The startup is one of several companies whose prospects are on the rise partly because of the U.S. military’s interest in hypersonic aerial vehicles that travel at more than five times the speed of sound. Like Stratolaunch — a company founded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen more than a decade ago — New Frontier aims to help the Pentagon counter hypersonic threats from Russia and China.

Bruner said New Frontier is taking a step-by-step approach, starting with the Pathfinder, a hypersonic vehicle that could be used for weapons testing or suborbital point-to-point cargo transport. The company has been awarded $2.25 million to develop the craft’s 3D-printed Mjölnir rocket engine, which is named after the hammer wielded by Thor in Norse mythology (and in Marvel movies). In June, New Frontier received an additional $150,000 from NASA for Mjölnir development.

Component testing for Mjölnir is ramping up, with a full-up test firing scheduled for next spring. Meanwhile, New Frontier’s hypersonic flight system one of 20 tech projects vying for prizes in the Army’s xTechPacific competition for cutting-edge technologies that range from jet guns to wall-building robots. Up to 10 projects could be selected to receive cash prizes and opportunities for follow-up grants.

Winners of the xTechPacific contest are due to be announced later this month, and Bruner said the recognition could accelerate New Frontier’s drive to get its Pathfinder off the ground.

“The program plan there is to start in earnest bending hardware for that,” he said. “It would be about two years to an integrated ground test, and then the start of the flight test campaign.”

New Frontier’s team doesn’t intend to stop there — but future development depends on future funding. “At about $15 million, we could fly that single-engine airplane,” Bruner said. “It would be north of 30 [million dollars] to fly the three-engine airplane that really has practical utility.”

The company aims to leverage several innovations that weren’t around when the DC-X flew. For example, the engine as well as the airframe would make use of 3D printing — a technology pioneered by Relativity Space, another aerospace startup with Seattle roots.

Bruner said the engine is designed to run on renewable natural gas, which makes use of the smelly gases produced by decomposition at landfills and water treatment plants, or by defecation in livestock facilities. “Renewable liquid natural gas is net carbon-negative, because you’re removing the methane that would otherwise have been dumped into the atmosphere,” he explained.

New Frontier could also take advantage of the work that’s being done to foster the return of commercial supersonic flight — including Boom Supersonic’s development of a new faster-than-sound passenger jet and NASA’s efforts to turn down the volume on sonic booms.

If New Frontier’s vision becomes a reality, its hypersonic aircraft could be used not only for weapons systems and cargo delivery, but for intercontinental passenger travel as well. Bruner has already called dibs on his preferred term for what New Frontier plans to build. “Just like in the ’50s — when everybody said, ‘Well, that’s a jetliner’ — people will call these ‘rocketliners,’” he said. “And on the chance that that happens, I trademarked it.”

Does New Frontier have a realistic chance of opening up the rocketliner age? Bruner noted that one of his co-founders, Jess Sponable, was a program manager for the DC-X — and that David Gregory, New Frontier’s third co-founder, helped create Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine as well as Ursa Major’s Hadley engine.

“I would say our odds of success, if properly funded, are pretty darn near 100%,” Bruner said. “All they’ve got to do is replicate what they did before.”

Washington’s other xTech entrants

New Frontier Aerospace is one of eight Washington state ventures on the Army’s list of finalists in the xTechPacific competition. Other Washington finalists include:

Other finalists are headquartered in Alaska and Hawaii. Up to 10 projects will be selected to receive $25,000 cash prizes and the opportunity to seek small-business grants worth up to $1.9 million. Winners are to be announced Sept. 19.

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