Close your eyes and imagine an Alaskan plateau at night. Above, the stars twinkle and the aurora borealis dances behind the mountains. The ground is cold, hard, and rumbles beneath your feet. It spreads up your legs and becomes a roar in your ears. In front, a rocket disengages from a launchpad and streaks upwards, leaving a fiery trail that lights up the sky.
You gaze, wide-eyed. What an incredible achievement, you think, to travel into space. But the Alaskan standing next to you grips your shoulder and asks, “Why isn’t this happening more often? Why is this still such a herculean effort nearly a century after Sputnik?” That man is Ben Kellie, founder of The Launch Company, who thinks the time to bask in spectacle is over.
A SpaceX alum who’s used to 100-hour weeks preparing for launch, Ben recognizes and respects the miracle of space travel. But he also believes it’s overdue a rethink. As space companies have multiplied, developing rockets faster, delivering payloads to the International Space Station (ISS), and dreaming of Mars, the launch cycle has remained stuck in the past – mostly due to the lack of access to launch sites.
“Over 100 companies are preparing for launch but only a dozen or so launch sites exist,” Ben said. “Rocket companies build rockets and we build launch sites because it’s a decoupled problem. I believe we can build a system where multiple rocket companies can work with us to get to launch faster and cheaper in a way that’s compatible with spaceports around the world.”
Ben’s grand mission runs parallel to his dream of reinventing the Alaskan economy. In a state where engineering and logistical challenges are an everyday occurrence, of overcoming the cold, unforgiving terrain, the unusually long days (and nights), and geographical isolation, it’s fertile ground for developing and enabling the third wave of space exploration.
“Everyone thinks Alaska is only an extraction state,” Ben said. “But we have musicians, artists, writers, engineers, and a bunch of other talents. I want to celebrate that. In many ways, what we’re doing at The Launch Company aligns with what Alaskans already do best but also builds on it in many ways. We Alaskans are capable of amazing things and I want to inspire others to build here.”
Admirable as Ben’s goals might be, you’re probably thinking: How on earth is it possible to bootstrap a space company? With Musk and Bezos hogging the limelight with multibillion-dollar valuations, Ben had a gargantuan task ahead as a bootstrapped founder. But solving engineering problems on a shoestring budget is, as you’ll see, an Alaskan specialty.
The Family That Thought Its Way out of Problems
Ben’s father founded Air Supply Alaska, an air cargo company, in his fifties. Ben would join his father on deliveries, sitting beside him in the plane as they flew over lakes and snowcapped mountains, and enjoying the occasional turn at the yoke. It was a family business where everyone pitched in and where Ben learned to think his way out of problems rather than throw money at them.
“It was a tough business,” Ben said. “There’d be times when we needed a new engine and we had to scrape together everything we had to make it happen. But it was cool to see my dad take this from idea to reality and make every facet of it work. And looking back, I loved seeing our family come together to meet these big audacious goals.”
Problem-solving is in Ben’s blood. And although it’d be a while before he put this skill into entrepreneurial gear, it was this childhood spent in awe of those closest to him, people in charge of their destinies, that would later inspire his first business. For the moment, however, it was enough to pursue an engineering career, eventually arriving at a little startup called SpaceX.
“After high school, I went to the University of Alaska to study mechanical engineering,” Ben said. “I then went to Ohio State for my MS. I graduated in 2012 and the US was still emerging from the financial crisis. Jobs were scarce, and although I had a few offers, I just threw my hat into the ring: I emailed SpaceX out of the blue and they gave me an interview.”
From Delivering Miracles to Extreme Burnout
Getting a job at SpaceX was a dream come true. Ever since he’d flown across wild terrain in his father’s Beech-18, Ben had fallen in love with aeronautics. But like many young engineers who weren’t alive during the Space Age of the fifties and sixties, he was frustrated with the pace of innovation in space travel. It was this passion for change that caught SpaceX’s eye.
“I’d joined the aerospace club in college and flew on the Vomit Comet. We also worked with NASA’s sounding rocket program to launch a student rocket to study the aurora borealis in Northern Alaska. It was 65 degrees below that day. I’m not a desk-and-reports engineer. I love the energy of working with people to make cool stuff happen. And that was exactly the attitude SpaceX was looking for.”
In two years, Ben worked his way up to lead pad engineer at SpaceX’s West Coast launch site. He’d never worked so hard in his life, Ben admits, but it was an experience that taught him a lot about launching spacecraft and established his reputation as an engineer who “gets shit done.” Eventually, the grueling days (which could last up to 18 hours), lack of sleep, and no life outside of work got to him.
“I worked with engineers and technicians to build launch sites, from idea through design, and then through build and test,” Ben said. “After that, we operated them. I remember when the team took ownership of a new site and I had 16 NASA people assigned to me to hand over all the systems. That’s when I realized I’d taken on too much. I’d been working 3 AM to 3 PM leading up to launch and then worked 1 AM to 5 PM during the campaign. I was going home the same time as everyone else in the world but getting up at midnight.”
Like a faulty rocket, burnout threatened to send Ben veering off course. There was no time off to recharge and the extremely lean team meant there were no substitute launch engineers ready to join midway through a project and take his place. If he gave up, his friends and colleagues would have to pick up the slack. They were as overworked as Ben was and he didn’t want to let them down.
“The thing I discovered is if you get into the business of delivering miracles, there are no days off,” Ben said. “You can’t say, ‘Sorry, no miracles today!’ I remember having the flu once and my seniors told me my output was starting to slip. I said, ‘Look, I have the flu, okay?’ I think SpaceX has changed quite a bit since then. This was old-school SpaceX. And I needed a break.”
Ben left SpaceX in 2014 having done amazing things, such as working on the conversion of a rundown Titan launch site into a modern spaceport for SpaceX. But as he enjoyed his first good night’s sleep in over two years, little did he know his biggest test yet was just around the corner. Just six weeks into his rest, a friend called with a proposition that would later almost break him.
“A friend called and said, ‘Hey, want to help us build ocean barges to land first stage rockets?’ I said yes because it sounded like an awesome project and would be just eight weeks’ work. However, eight months later we still hadn’t cracked it. We’d build the barges, drag them out on the ocean, and the rocket would blow them apart and we’d have to rebuild them.”
Despite suffering from stress and anxiety, Ben had committed to the project, and rather than deal with mounting mental health issues, decided to “run faster.” He’d sleep maybe three or four hours per night, work 17-hour days, and his physical health had begun to deteriorate, too. Things would only get worse when he discovered a flaw in the dockside processing plan.
“‘Say we do land this rocket,’ I said to the VP, ‘Where are we going to put it once we come back to port? We can’t just set it down anywhere, you know.’ The guy couldn’t believe there was no area to process the vehicle after it came back to port yet. A few minutes after that call, my friend Chris’s and my phones pinged. It was an email with 37 different people copied into it. It just said, ‘Chris and Ben are in charge. Do what they ask.’”
It was an insane request: Install a processing pad on the shore next to the barge (something people had been discussing for six months) in just three days. One that exposed a serious oversight yet also showed senior management’s absolute trust in Ben and Chris’s abilities. Undeterred by this near-impossible task, they rolled up their sleeves and rigged together a solution, just as his dad would have done as a bush pilot.
“Chris and I looked at each other. We’d just finished a 12-hour day and then had to send the barge back up to mission and do all the work to get it ready for if the rocket returns. They’d been sitting on this issue for six months so we had three days to do six months’ work. We didn’t eat. We didn’t do anything but work for those three days. And we got it done.”
The Return to Ben’s Roots That Spawned a Business
Ben quit SpaceX for the second time in 2015 and returned home to Alaska a burned-out shell in need of serious rest. While roaming the great outdoors, he’d reflect on everything he’d achieved so far and how to apply those skills to another business. How could he stay in control of his time and enjoy a semblance of work-life balance while still enabling space exploration from Alaska?
He’d considered founding a launch company as far back as 2013 but hadn’t decided if it was viable. “I remember telling my buddy that I’d love to build launch sites for these small to medium-sized rockets. It seems like there’s a huge opportunity and we could make them mobile,” Ben said. While chewing on the opportunity, he founded another startup to pay the bills.
“I started a drone company with my brother,” Ben said. “We would fly drones in these remote areas by hiking out to map and quantify all this really cool stuff that would normally cost tens of thousands of dollars. We could do it for a couple of grand, and it was super fun, but I didn’t see a big future in it.”
Ben then decided to consult to supplement his income. Guess who his first client was? SpaceX. This was the green light he’d been waiting for: “If SpaceX still needed my expertise, maybe others would too,” Ben said. “In 2019, I changed the name of the drone business to The Launch Company and told everybody, ‘Hey, if you’ve got rocket problems, we’ve got solutions.’”
The big solution for Ben has always been the mobile, multi-use launchpad, something he believes will enable repeatable, reliable access to space. Interoperability is a problem, Ben argues, because every space company is racing to build its own systems. Rather than focus on clients’ needs, they waste time on technical differentiation that seldom matters to customers.
“Every aerospace company is building their own special aircraft with its own special requirements, fittings, and fueling,” Ben said. “And then they’re building their own special airport that only they can use. And then they’re building their own operations plan to deal with regulations. I’ve worked with and watched these companies endlessly reinvent the wheel.”
“Imagine spending millions of dollars on a problem that’s already been solved several times over,” Ben laughs. As crazy as that sounds, building a reusable, mobile launch site that would support every rocket, launch system, and regulatory body in the world is almost as nuts – at least to the uninitiated. Ben, however, is lucky enough to have worked on these problems for years.
“Number one is securing land that can become an on-ramp to space,” Ben said. “Few sites are available and it’s a long, expensive process to create a new one. Number two is building resilient launch equipment while also building and delivering your rocket. And number three is regulation and licensing, which can be difficult depending on where you launch from.”
Ben believes rocket companies have enough on their plate without worrying about launch problems, too: “Do you really want to go through all of these launch hurdles while also developing engines, designing your rocket, and finding your first customers when you could lease a product or service from us?”
Why Bootstrapping Alaskans Think Differently
Ben is honest about the challenges of building a bootstrapped launch company. Launching rockets involves humanity’s most technical engineering challenges. It’s labor-intensive and heavily regulated (or, in some cases, confusingly regulated), where mistakes cost millions and potentially the lives of a space crew. But Ben’s Alaskan heritage has fortified his will.
“On hard days, I hike the mountains,” Ben said. “I can run or bike the coastal trail in the summer and ski it in the winter. I’m very connected to this place and the people here. I’m amazed at how people adapt, how they rig systems to work for them. It’s this level of engineering ingenuity to which the company and I aspire. If something breaks down out here, you fix it. There aren’t other options.”
Ben remembers being stranded as a kid on an old, rebuilt snow machine that broke down five miles from his house: “I repaired snow machines growing up and one of them blew up on a lake. That five-mile hike home in a blizzard changes your perspective. I owe a lot to Alaska. I want people to look at what we did at The Launch Company through bootstrapping and get inspired to do the same.”
The Launch Company started with consulting before moving on to bigger challenges, each achievement fueling the next. As a bootstrapped business, they had to invest time and energy into processes and automation early so they could standardize and earn those economies of efficiency. And little by little, revenue grew to fund even greater contracts.
“We have this process, we have this documentation, and everyone approaches problem-solving in the same way,” Ben said. “From there, we were able to turn that trust into our first piece of hardware. We bootstrapped hardware from Alaska onto a rocket which I think is probably a first. From there we just kept expanding the type and challenge of hardware.”
This iterative scaling strategy reflects that of the resilient Alaskan hotfixing in the wilderness to get to their next destination. And it has worked well for Ben who started The Launch Company with just three employees and who today employs nearly 30. The investment in process, auditing, and automation has allowed Ben to grow his business without ever getting lost in admin.
But you’ll have guessed that Ben doesn’t find customers through Facebook ads or SEO. It’s primarily a networking business, and he’s proud to have many new space clients including SpaceX, Relativity Space, Virgin Orbit, and Firefly Space as customers. Nevertheless, with just a handful of clients, revenue was unpredictable, which forced Ben to find other routes to achieving his goals.
An Acquisition of Cosmological Impact
Ben is proud of bootstrapping The Launch Company to substantial annual revenue. But remember this isn’t a SaaS business with a recurring revenue model. Aeronautics companies may spend millions developing rockets but don’t always launch them on a regular schedule. To make an impact on a global scale, Ben would need some help.
“I was wondering how to take the company to the next level,” Ben said. “That was just the open question, and I started meditating on it, journaling, going on long walks, and asking myself what we were doing and why. And then, who can help us get there? We had offers from institutional investors. We had offers from revenue-based funds. Then this Voyager thing came up.”
Voyager Space has a 30-year space plan that includes “launch-as-a-service.” It wants to create a vertically integrated enterprise that delivers end-to-end fulfillment of “any mission humans can conceive.” Since Ben’s goal is to standardize launches, it made The Launch Company an ideal fit for Voyager’s New Space exploration company.
“I was skeptical of an acquisition at first,” Ben said. “But I understood what Voyager was working to build after the first phone call. They said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a 30-year vision for space, and we see launch strategically fitting into that. We’re not going to change your DNA. We just want you to do more, better, faster, and we’re going to come in and help you do it.”
Ben is an eminent aeronautical engineer with a stellar reputation, but with just a handful of space clients, he would never have enough reach to create a global network of standardized launch platforms. That’s something he couldn’t bootstrap, Ben admits, which stands to reason when you think of the expertise, hardware, and logistics it takes to launch a rocket into space.
“We couldn’t just call up NASA and win a contract,” Ben said. “But the team at Voyager said, ‘You all have the technical ability. You’re already delivering at that level, but we’re going to teach you to speak their language.’ We couldn’t bootstrap these launch sites all over the world, so we had to do something. The best move for us to grow intelligently and make the most of strategic partnerships was to partner with Voyager and keep going.”
Voyager caught Ben and his team at a crossroads. How could The Launch Company put their engineering, design, and hardware experience into multi-use launch platforms? How could they convince more space companies to back their mission to enable easy access to space? Voyager understood Ben’s vision, but importantly, respected his desire to do it his way.
“Teaming with Voyager made sense,” Ben said. “If it was a traditional VC, they’d make us cancel our contracts and work on the multi-user launch site full speed until we made it or went out of business. Voyager understands that this market is evolving and they’re helping us build resilience for the long term. Plus, I have two kids and I don’t want to go back to the SpaceX thing where I’m chained to a desk all day and answering emails at 3 AM. I want to work hard, move the needle, and then go home to my family.”
Ben has earned that right. As he reflects on what he had to do to get to this point in his life, he remains philosophical. Ben suggests founders invest time in their physical and mental health rather than losing themselves in a fog of uncertainty. Doing so, Ben argues, allows you to stay focused on what you want to achieve and realize that you’re doing better every day.
“When you take care of yourself, like meditating, journaling, walking outside, doing breathing exercises, and the like, you learn not to spread yourself too thin,” Ben said. “You’ve got to be honest, too. Get rid of things that aren’t working to make room for those that will. When you do that, you realize your problems aren’t as big anymore.”
Ben’s Alaskan heritage has helped him accomplish things few of us would even have attempted. In many ways, Alaska is the ideal “launchpad” for a space company like his. Not only are there engineers aplenty, but if they’re anything like Ben, they will have the resilience and perseverance needed to create waves in space as well as at home.
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