Cantrell’s latest focus is Phantom Space, one in a sea of new launch startups seeking to take advantage of the explosion of smaller, cheaper satellite designs and build rockets that can meet the growing demand to launch these payloads into orbit. But as is par for the course with Cantrell, Phantom is trying to find success by swimming against the current.
One of the hottest trends in rockets right now is ride-share launches, where customers buy available spots for their payloads on a midsize or large rocket with a specific departure date. This is usually a cheaper way than single launches for customers to get a payload into space—with SpaceX’s ride-share program, it costs $1 million to launch a 200-kilogram payload (its Falcon 9 rocket can take 22,800 kg total into low Earth orbit). The company launched a dedicated ride-share mission on January 21, deploying a record 143 satellites into orbit. It’s following up with a similar mission in June. In a surprising about-face in March, Rocket Lab, which has long resisted the idea of building larger rockets, unveiled the Neutron for the precise purpose of doing ride-share launches and competing with the SpaceX Falcon 9.
Ride shares aren’t Phantom’s cup of tea. The company wants to establish its space footprint by mass-manufacturing small rockets and launching a hundred a year. “We want to be the Henry Ford of space,” says Cantrell. “We’re taking a contrarian view of how we develop this.” Just as Henry Ford didn’t reinvent the car but the way it was built, Phantom isn’t out to reinvent rockets—just their production.
How so? When SpaceX started, the supply chains for aerospace companies going into orbit were enmeshed in the financial system of the US Defense Department. To stay independent of that system, SpaceX decided to build everything itself, relying on Musk’s fortune and a ton of investment to stay afloat during years of losses. It was a long-term gamble that paid off.
But Phantom’s founders decided they didn’t need to follow suit. Even in just the last five years, aerospace supply chains have become more fluid and competitive, which means Phantom can just buy the specific parts it wants rather than build everything from scratch. It buys 3D-printed engines from Ursa Major in Colorado. The design of the flight computer was licensed from NASA, and it uses a BeagleBone Black board that some distributors sell for around $50. Other components, like batteries and telemetry systems, are bought through the missile defense supply chain.
The Henry Ford analogy isn’t just an aspiration—it’s a model for the company. Cofounder Michael D’Angelo says the car and rocket businesses follow similar growth curves: doubling production leads to certain economies of scale also associated with greater efficiency and fewer production errors. Computers and mobile devices followed a similar path. And he argues that the supply chains nowadays are mature enough to allow for the kind of speedy manufacturing Phantom wants.
Right now, the company is pursuing two types of rockets. There’s the 18.7-meter-tall Daytona, which should be able to lift about 450 kilograms into space. It’s perhaps on the larger end of what might be termed the small-rocket class, but according to Cantrell, the company’s analysis estimates this to be an optimum size for profitable activity. Then there’s Laguna, a 20.5-meter-tall rocket that can lift payloads of up to 1,200 kg. Phantom is developing a version of Laguna with a reusable first-stage booster, like a SpaceX Falcon 9 (with a similar vertical landing process).
Phantom is hoping to fill a gap in the market. While ride shares are cheap, customers have less control over how the mission goes. A ride-share mission, like a train, is on a fixed route. If you want your satellite to go a different orbit or trajectory, you need to install expensive thrusters that can take it there. Otherwise, you have to redesign its function for the new orbit, tolerate a less favorable orbit, or simply buy a ticket for a different mission. And you better hope your satellite can fit snugly with all the other payloads it’s going with—these flights are fully booked.
A small-rocket launch might cost more, but it gives control back to the customer. If you have a mission with very specific requirements—like replacing a particular satellite in a constellation, launching sensitive equipment, or running an expensive tech demo—you’ll probably want a dedicated flight rather than a ride share. “There’s definitely an interest and demand for these small-rocket launches,” says Ryan Martineau, a space system engineer at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Utah.
Cantrell thinks Phantom can meet this demand without blowing its budget. He estimates that the company’s approach can actually offer launches for a third the price of the ride-share model.
First, though, the company has to actually get to space. The aim is for Daytona to make its first spaceflight in 2023. Classically, says Cantrell, there’s a 50% reliability rate for the first four flights of a new rocket. Phantom’s plans more or less assume that at least one of its first four flights gets to orbit. It recently signed a lease from the Air Force for a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and it is currently looking for permission to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, as well—important initial steps if 100 launches a year is truly the goal.
Phantom also wants to build satellites and become something of a one-stop shop for customers. Its acquisition of Cantrell’s StratSpace this week is supposed to be a key part of this side of the business. The company is working on constellation prototypes for customers and is part of a group developing a commercially funded $1.2 billion science mission (specific details won’t be disclosed for several months). And it has been quietly working on a communications network it calls Phantom Cloud, which is essentially a mesh network other satellites can use to communicate with each other or with systems on the surface. Cantrell calls it “satellite internet for space.”
In reality, Phantom doesn’t exactly need to beat SpaceX and the other large rocket makers—it just needs to hold its own. “As the small-launcher market matures, I think you’ll see a wider variety of customers taking advantage of that capability,” says Martineau. “I think it’s unlikely that one will become dominant and edge out the other.”
Coexistence is fine, says Cantrell: “We recognize that SpaceX has magnificently developed this large reusable space transportation system, but we think that is but one of at least two—maybe more—fundamentally different economic systems in the space transportation ecosystem.” He hopes it’s Phantom that pioneers the other.
A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry
China has come to dominate the market in recent years, and by 2017 the country produced over 80% of the world’s supply. Beijing achieved this by pouring resources into the study and mining of rare-earth elements for decades, building up six big state-owned firms and relaxing environmental regulations to enable low-cost and high-pollution methods. The country then rapidly increased rare-earth exports in the 1990s, a sudden rush that bankrupted international rivals. Further development of rare-earth industries is a strategic goal under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 strategy.
The country has demonstrated its dominance several times, most notably by stopping all shipments of the resources to Japan in 2010 during a maritime dispute. State media have warned that China could do the same to the United States.
The US and other Western nations have seen this monopoly as a critical weakness for their side. As a result, they have spent billions in recent years to get better at finding, mining, and processing the minerals.
In early June 2022, the Canadian mining company Appia announced it had found new resources in Saskatchewan. Within weeks, the American firm USA Rare Earth announced a new processing facility in Oklahoma.
Dragonbridge engaged in similar activity in 2021, soon after the American military signed an agreement with the Australian mining firm Lynas, the largest rare-earths company outside China, to build a processing plant in Texas.
The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.
The infrastructure bill that passed in November 2021 earmarked $7.5 billion for President Biden’s goal of having 500,000 chargers (individual plugs, not stations) around the nation. In the best case, Michalek envisions a public-private collaboration to build a robust national charging network. The Biden administration has pledged to install plugs throughout rural areas, while companies constructing charging stations across America will have a strong incentive to fill in the country’s biggest cities and most popular thoroughfares. After all, companies like Electrify America, EVgo, and ChargePoint charge customers per kilowatt-hour of energy they use, much like utilities.
Most new electric vehicles promise at least 250 miles on a full charge, and that number should keep ticking up. The farther cars can go without charging, the fewer anxious drivers will be stuck in lines waiting for a charging space to open. But make no mistake, Michalek says: an electric-car country needs a plethora of plugs, and soon.
We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”
The term “smart cities” originated as a marketing strategy for large IT vendors. It has now become synonymous with urban uses of technology, particularly advanced and emerging technologies. But cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress. They support those displaced by war and crisis and generate 80% of global GDP. More than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion more people than do now. And with over 90% of urban areas located on coasts, cities are on the front lines of climate change.
A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens. This also risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there.
This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.
Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor, and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes.
In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”
However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.
In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit.
We continue to explore how digital technology might enhance cities—for example, we are collaborating with major e-commerce platforms across Africa that are transforming urban service delivery. But we are also shaping this broader tool kit to tackle the urban impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
The UrbanShift initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme in partnership with UNDP and many others, is working with cities to promote nature-based solutions, low-carbon public transport, low-emission zones, integrated waste management, and more. This approach focuses not just on implementation, but also on policies and guiderails. The UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook aims to help policymakers and urban innovators explore how they might embed “smartness” in any city.
Our work at the United Nations is driven by the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 essential, ambitious, and urgent global targets that aim to shape a better world by 2030. Truly smart cities would play a role in meeting all 17 SDGs, from tackling poverty and inequality to protecting and improving biodiversity.
Coordinating and implementing the complex efforts required to reach these goals is far more difficult than deploying the latest app or installing another piece of smart street furniture. But we must move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development. The well-being of the billions who call the world’s cities home depends on it.
Riad Meddeb is interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. Calum Handforth is an advisor for digitalization, digital health, and smart cities at the UNDP Global Centre.