WASHINGTON — The new chief executive of Momentus hopes to turn the page on the company’s past regulatory problems and focus on development of its in-space propulsion technology it plans to demonstrate next year.
John Rood formally took over as chief executive of Momentus Aug. 1. Rood spent more than 20 years in various U.S. government roles, including serving as undersecretary of defense for policy from 2018 to 2020. Dawn Harms, who had been acting chief executive since January, returned to her original role as chief revenue officer.
In an interview, Rood said he was attracted to Momentus because of the role he sees the company playing in transporting cubesats and other small satellites that are launched on rideshare missions to their desired orbits.
“What was exciting to me is that there is this moment in space in the space industry that I wanted to be a part of. I do see this new era, if you will, where we’re going to use space differently,” he said. “Cubesats have capabilities that I didn’t think could be done before, and we’re going to see this big growth in the use of those. When I looked at the vision for Momentus, I thought that was really compelling.”
The company has yet to demonstrate its ability to transport cubesats because of regulatory problems. The company was unable to get a payload review from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly its first Vigoride tugs on SpaceX rideshare missions in January and June because of Defense Department concerns about the company’s foreign ownership at the time. Those issues led to the departure of its original Russian chief executive, Mikhail Kokorich, and divestment of shares he and another Russian co-founder, Lev Khasis, held in the company.
The company announced June 9 it had reached a national security agreement with the Defense Department and Treasury Department. “We think we’ve made significant strides to address the government’s concerns,” Rood said, citing the agreement. “The Defense Department oversees that agreement, and we’re in regular communication with them as we start to implement the requirements under the national security agreement.”
Among the steps the company has taken to implement the agreement is to hire a retired two-star admiral, Victorino Mercado, as its security director and Karen Plonty, an executive with more than 35 years’ experience in international compliance programs, as its chief security officer. “They’ve begun work to put in place all the processes and to work with the Defense Department to clarify the requisite understandings,” he said. “We’re doing the hard work to get that done.”
Momentus is also trying to put behind it a July 13 settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission tied to its ongoing merger with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), Stable Road Acquisition Corporation, which is pending a vote by Stable Road shareholders Aug. 11. Momentus, Stable Road and Brian Kabot, chief executive of Stable Road, agreed to pay more than $8 million in penalties regarding false claims made by Momentus and a failure of Stable Road to perform sufficient due diligence.
Among the false claims the SEC mentioned in its settlement was the maturity of the company’s propulsion technology. Momentus claimed that it successfully tested its water plasma thrusters, also known as microwave electro-thermal (MET) thrusters, in 2019 on an experimental cubesat called El Camino Real. However, the SEC noted that company documentation showed the test fell far short of the goal of 100 thruster firings.
While Momentus accepted the settlement, it’s argued in its S-4 registration statement with the SEC that the company still got good data from El Camino Real, demonstrating that the thruster system could produce thrust despite problems with a pump designed to send water into the thruster chamber.
“The mission did not meet all of its prelaunch success criteria. At the same time, there were aspects of the mission that were clearly significant,” the company said in a statement. “El Camino Real was the first time an MET thruster was fired in space, and also the first time a water-plasma-based propulsion system was used for the firing of a thruster in space.”
The company is currently testing what it calls a third-generation MET thruster, and announced July 29 that the thruster had completed 350 cycles in an ongoing life cycle test to see how much the plasma it produces degrades the thruster.
“So far in the first 350 cycles, we’re not seeing any degradation of the performance of the engine,” Rob Schwarz, chief technology officer of Momentus, said in an interview. Those tests will continue to September. “It’s definitely premature to declare victory, but we are very encouraged by the results that we’re seeing so far in terms of proving out the longevity.”
Either that version of the thruster or a newer version, designed to be easier to manufacture, will be used on its first Vigoride mission, now expected in June 2022, pending regulatory approvals. That will be what Schwarz called a “hybrid demo,” carrying commercial payloads that will be released before testing the MET thruster. If successful, the company will start offering in-space transportation services on future missions starting as soon as October 2022.
Despite the Vigoride launch delays and other issues, Rood said Momentus is seeing “significant interest” in its transportation services and has a current backlog of $66 million. “I think all in all, we’re feeling reasonably good about where that stands after the recent issues that the company has had.”