Our Founder's Story
Driving past the well-worn light industrial buildings scattered around Union City, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, few people would realize that a new era of low-cost access to space is taking shape there, or that, quite possibly, the next Elon Musk is getting his start in one of those buildings.
On almost any afternoon, you can find Sihao Huang toiling away at a CNC machine, calibrating sensors on an orbital optical communication experiment or overseeing development of Aphelion Orbitals, Inc.'s ultra-low cost cubesat launch system. Over the past year and a half, Sihao, along with co-founders of the company, have steadily built a new space enterprise dedicated to democratizing access to space for commercial and scientific uses by anyone ranging from individual researchers to large organizations and government customers.
Today, Aphelion Orbitals has a small but fully-outfitted R&D and manufacturing facility in New Jersey capable of machining components for the company's Trailblazer and Fenyman launch vehicles that are in the design phase as well as complete satellite hardware for their Cassiopeia cubesat product line. As if that weren't enough for a high velocity startup to manage, in conjunction with the non-profit ARES Institute, Aphelion is currently deep in development of an optical communications experiment that will prove valuable for future Low Earth Orbit and deep-space cubesat missions requiring high data rate communications.
What is remarkable is the fact that Sihao is 17 years old but is already CEO at Aphelion. With his family's support, he emigrated from China to the United States in 2014 to pursue his dream and driving passion to open up space to all of humanity.
“Coming here was solely my decision,” said Sihao. “I’ve been adrift since I was 3. Up till 2014 I’ve moved 13 times; lived in 4 cities across 3 different countries. I never felt grounded in a safety net and I’ve always wanted to do something big. “
Sihao settled in New York City along with his parents, who moved to the U.S. so he could pursue his dreams, and is now a permanent resident on his way to becoming a naturalized citizen. It's a long journey from growing up in Asia, where he still returns each year to see his grandfather and family. But always, his focus is on the core passion that drives him.
“I set my mind on the most absurd thing that I was able to think of: to put a satellite in orbit, from beginning to end,” he explained as to the origins of his vision that has become Aphelion Orbitals. “And that was the purpose of my new life. I was quick to realize that I was going need more than knowledge and a lab.”
“In one month I started reading ferociously into dozens of fields, from project management to business structuring to spacecraft system design. Then slowly the team came together. Together we built that dream into a viable business case.”
In early 2016, Aphelion Orbitals was formally organized in New York. In the spring of 2017, the company reorganized and incorporated in Florida, “the world's premiere gateway to space.”
Sihao is one of those rare examples of someone who, from early on, develops a passion in life and has both the support and opportunity to pursue it, not to mention a 24-hour a day drive to see those dreams come to fruition. His motivation comes from his grandfather and first mentor who introduced him to the world of engineering.
“My grandfather has been an inspiration for me since I was little,” Sihao said in an emotional recollection of his childhood with family in Asia. “When I barely knew how to speak, he started giving me lectures on engineering. We’d sit in front of a table the whole night and he’d take a stack of blank paper and start drawing. At first I watched him blankly, but until today I remember the nights when we’d sit together and talk about radios, bridges, material, and rockets.”
“It was his childhood dream to be a part of humanity’s first steps to space. His family was torn apart by war... That dream was extinguished in him, and I realized that I, myself, had to carry it on. I wanted to launch something into orbit and I wanted him to be alive to see it.”
Today, that dream is alive at Aphelion with a team is comprised of seven individuals, each possessing unique talents and experience that span technology and aerospace fields. It is continually adding new talent while staying true to the goal of remaining a small, agile and fast-paced team. Currently, the Trailblazer suborbital rocket is nearing its critical design review and on track for a first launch in early 2018. Meanwhile, the foundational design process for Aphelion’s liquid-oxygen and methane powered Feynman dedicated cubesat launcher is progressing steadily. This fall, the company's first engine built entirely in-house will be on the stand for its first test firing.
Funding has come from internal sources, of course, and also a $500,000 Seed funding round that was successfully closed by Sihao last summer and has placed Aphelion in a good position to complete major development milestones for the coming year. Meanwhile, the company is actively seeking outside investment in order to accelerate and complete development of the launch systems and bring them to market.
While all of this is taking place, which is possibly more work than most traditional CEOs would be willing to take on, Sihao is still pursuing his education. He has won numerous awards in math and science in China, Singapore and the U.S. and consistently ranks at the top of his class with a near-perfect record despite the fact that he is an entrepreneur managing and growing a newspace startup company. One worry he probably doesn't need to have: nearly every, if not every, university in the country will be happy to enroll him to their family.
There is probably no higher-risk venture to undertake than one in the space industry. To some that may be magnified by the singular unique characteristics of Aphelion Orbitals, Inc. and its founding team, especially Sihao Huang. But if the past year is any indication of future events, that future looks very bright for Sihao and the entire team and, in the end, the entire world will benefit.