Ursa Major wins hypersonics engine prototype contract

By Tony Bertuca  / May 23, 2023

The Air Force Research Lab has awarded Ursa Major a contract to build a prototype storable engine for hypersonic and space launch missions.

Under the 12-month, “eight-figure” contract, Ursa Major says it will build and test a prototype of its new 4,000-pound “Draper” engine for hypersonics and further develop its 200,000-pound thrust “Arroway” engine for space launch.

Joe Laurienti, founder and chief executive officer of Ursa Major, told Inside Defense in an interview that he believes the contract is an important signal from DOD.

“I think the topline really is [that] this is the DOD's first real push into treating hypersonics like a new domain,” he said. “The purpose of this product that we're developing is rapid, low-cost test flights of hypersonics. It's everything from just simulating adversarial capabilities for ground-based, space-based, air-based detection systems to aerial targets. The broader market signals that really excite us here is the U.S. doesn't have a hypersonic aerial target.”

Laurienti said the development has the potential to increase hypersonic test flights far beyond where they are today.

“Today, a test flight is a very expensive missile system trying to fly,” he said. “We need to get in the phase of flying weekly, if not daily and across different missions.”

Laurienti said he sees the contract as AFRL “taking a signal from other branches of the government and saying: ‘Here’s the propulsion that is needed to quickly field hypersonic test flights.’”

Senior defense officials have recently lamented the lack of a U.S. hypersonics defense industrial base. But Laurienti said Ursa Major is working to leverage its commercial space production processes and facilities to build hypersonic systems.

“There’s absolutely not an industrial base for hypersonics. There’s zero commercial market,” he said. “But what we’ve really been able to demonstrate here is because we’re a propulsion-focused company . . . all of the investments we’ve made around our commercial space business actually apply here. If you walk our production floor, you might see space engines being built right next to hypersonic engines. It’s not necessarily a dual-use technology, but it’s a dual use process. It’s a dual use factory.”

Hence, according to Laurienti, Ursa Major’s ability to move a prototype within the next 12 months.

“It’s a really rapid prototyping effort,” he said.