10 things about Rocket Lab

Peter Beck beside an Electron

RELATED AUDIO: Rocket Lab Peter Beck on his company's maiden test launch (May 15)

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1. Rocket Lab was founded in 2006 by Peter Beck (now 40), who grew up in Invercargill. Beck never went to university. He got a tool-making apprenticeship at Fisher & Paykel before getting a job at Crown agency Industrial Research Ltd (IRL, now subsumed into Callaghan Innovation's scientific research wing).

2. At IRL, Beck was involved in precision engineering projects, including work on aspects of high-temperature superconductor manufacture. It was also at IRL's Parnell, Auckland office that he first met NBR Rich Lister Stephen Tindall, whose K1W1 fund backs so many local startups. Sir Stephen would become one of Rocket Lab's first investors.

3. In 2009, Rocket Lab became the first private company in the Southern Hemisphere to reach space after its Atea 1 rocket — looking like nothing more than an overgrown firework — blasted off from Sir Michael Fay's private island off the Coromandel  

4. The company's success, and its innovative engine and fuel handling technologies, attracted attention from the States. In 2010, Rocket Lab worked on a project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA – the US Department of Defense agency that gave the world the internet. The DARPA contract involved a viscous liquid monopropellant (VLM) fuel that was thixotropic – neither a solid nor a liquid. According to John Bridges and David Downs in their book No.8 Re-wired (which has a chapter called The New Zealand Space Programme), the result of this work was demonstrated to US military clients in 2012.

5. In 2013, Rocket Lab won backing from legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, the billionaire whose fund also invested in Auckland-based LanzaTech (a clean energy company later moved to Chicago). The level of Khosla Ventures investment (and others) has never been disclosed. But it was around this time that Rocket Lab moved its company registration from NZ to the US and opened a corporate headquarters in Huntiington Beach, Los Angeles.

6. In 2014, another funding round saw US military and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin invest in Rocket Lab, along with Bessemer Ventures, and more money from Khosla and Tindall. Crown agency Callaghan Innovation also chipped in matching R&D funding worth up to $15 million over three years.

7. Kiwi entrepreneur Mark Rocket (yes, he changed his name), a director of Rocket Lab in its early days, was one of the first people to book a flight on Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. But Peter Beck told NBR Radio during an Ask Me Anything session that he had no interest in flying in space. He was too keenly aware of the dangers.

Rocket Lab now employs 200 staff and counting. Some corporate staff are in LA, but most are in the company's facility near Auckland Airport (pictured).

8. In 2013, Rocket Lab had the first test-firing for its 3D-printed Rutherford engine, a key component of its plan for the Electron, an 18m tall rocket that could take a small (150kg) satellite into low earth orbit for the just $US5 million, a bargain basement price in aerospace terms. The company had found a niche with a lot of demand. NASA (with a $US7.95 contact including services) signed on for a launch. So did Moon Express (which is angling to ultimately send a probe to the moon), Planet (imaging satellites) and Spire (weather satellites).

9. A $US75 million investment round earlier this year, with US investors plus Sir Stephen tipping in more funds, saw Rocket Lab's private equity value top $US1 billion (the company won't provide a shareholder breakdown).

10. Its swelling order book, and deep-pockets backing, mean  Rocket Lab has been able to hire 200 staff, and counting. Some are based in LA, but most are working from the company's R&D facility near Auckland Airport.  It's also been able to open a private launch facility on the Mahia Peninsula.

11. (Yes, we're into bonus points.) As first reported by NBR, Thursday's maiden Electron test flight successfully made it to space, but did not manage to make it into orbit (as it must to deploy a payload during commercial flights). Test flights are of course called that for a reason. There are two more tests to go before to iron out issues before Rocket Lab begins commercial flights — and they will have to be soonish. Earlier, Beck told NBR Radio that customer Moon Express wants launches before the end of this year. 

12. Once the Electron does successfully makes it to orbit (fingers crossed for the next two tests), it will be the first rocket to do so from a private launch facility.

13. Rocket Lab is now subject to regulation, although the government describes it as "permissive". Ten MBIE staff now have space-related duties, and the department had staff on the ground at Mahia for Thursday's launch.

14. Beck says his company has a full manifest of one launch a month for two years once it gets pumping with commercial flights. He says at full production, it could sustain 50 Electron launches a year (for context, there were just 22 launches in the US last year) and 82 internationally. The Rocket Lab founder told NBR Radio last month that company will build more launch sites, with some of them out of New Zealand.

The launch facility at Mahia


HOW OVERSEAS MEDIA ARE REPORTING THURSDAY'S LAUNCH, AND ROCKET LAB

New Zealand space launch is first from a private site (BBC)

[New Zealand] has less air traffic, compared to say the US, so there is less need for flights to be rerouted every time a rocket is sent to space.

Image captionThe launch site is located on North Island's Mahia peninsula

New Zealand is also positioned well to get satellites into a north-to-south orbit around Earth.

The trajectory takes the rocket out over open water, far from from people and property.

The country hopes these favourable factors will help it become a low-cost space hub.

This New Goldilocks Rocket Is Juuust Right for Small Satellites (Wired)

The smallsat makers — whose creations will mostly take pictures of Earth and provide space-based internet, making up a projected $22 billion industry in a decade—are ready for their special rockets [like Rocket Lab's Electron]. They have cut their own costs by shrinking their satellites, but right now they have to pay for expensive tickets on outsized rockets.

Rocket Lab launched its experimental rocket to space for the first time — but didn’t reach orbit (The Verge)

Based in California and New Zealand, Rocket Lab has been developing the Electron rocket for the last four years now. What sets the vehicle apart from other orbital rockets in operation is its size. The Electron is just 55 feet high, making it much tinier than other commercial orbital vehicles like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 or the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V, which tower above 200 feet. That’s because the Electron is squarely aimed at capitalizing on the small satellite market, by sending satellites weighing up to 500 pounds into lower Earth orbit.

New Zealand Launches Into Space Race With 3D-Printed Rocket (Reuters/New York Times)

Ships and planes need re-routing every time a rocket is launched, which limits opportunities in crowded U.S. skies, but New Zealand, a country of 4 million people in the South Pacific, has only Antarctica to its south. The country is also well-positioned to send satellites bound for a north-to-south orbit around the poles.

But many locals in the predominantly Māori community were not happy with access to public areas blocked.

"People come to Mahia so they can go to the beach and it's been chopped off now and by the sounds of it one of these rockets are going to be launching one every 30 days so they've taken over our lifestyle," said Mahia farmer Pua Taumata.

New Zealand Space Launch Has Nation Reaching for the Stars (AP, New York Times)

The venture has left New Zealand officials excited and struggling to keep up. Politicians are rushing through new space laws and the government  [via MBIE] has set up a boutique space agency, which employs 10 people.

Economic Development Minister Simon Bridges said that if Rocket Lab is successful, it could change people's perception of New Zealand from a place full of farms and nice scenery to a technologically savvy nation on the rise.

He said the space industry could soon bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each year and rival industries like wine and kiwifruit. He envisions spinoff companies and many high-paying jobs, much of it built on the back of Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab launched its Electron rocket for the first time in a test Wednesday night (LA Times)

Huntington Beach small-satellite launch firm Rocket Lab launched its Electron rocket for the first time in a test Wednesday night. The rocket made it to space, but not to orbit.


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25 Comments & Questions

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Anything from north korea's news channel, they seem to have a thing for rockets

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Elon Musk has said that Spacex is going to try to recover the second stage of their rocket and make it totally reusable. This would lower costs dramatically and probably make the Electron rocket uneconomic.
Already I have seen comments over at nasaspaceflight saying that costs per kg to orbit of the electron are about 10 times that of emerging middle/heavy weight rockets.
I hope Rocketlab continues to innovate and doesn't get wiped out by larger space companies like Spacex which are bringing in full reusability.
At the end of the day if we want to be a spacefaring world there has to be reusability. It is just too expensive to throw away rockets that get used only once.

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NBR has put the competition from Space X question to Peter Beck a couple of times. In short, there's demand to sustain more than one private player, especially with Rocket Lab targeting small payloads and offering a "ride share" arrangement so different subsat makers can share the cost of one $US5m flight. And even with it's drive to reduce costs, the heavy-lifting Space X Falcon 9 still costs around $US133m per launch -- so there's a huge gulf.

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Fuel costs make up less than 1% of the cost of a rocket. So a fully reusable falcon heavy that puts 54tons into low earth orbit would cost $1.3million.
Those comments from Rocketlab probably assume that spacex reuseability wont work.
RocketLab probably have a small window of time while spacex perfect reuseability and repay their development costs but then Spacex's costs will come right down.
I hope Rocket Lab use their time wisely to make their own reuseable rockets.

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I'm not sure how soon we'll see a $1.3m launch. I am sure that the investors who recently tipped another $US75m into Rocket Lab (pushing its PE value over $US1b) would have accessed where the company stands against Space X and ohters.

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There are a number of emerging players in this small-sat market but in particular, Vector Space. As in any well run business, competition will keep the mind focused and provide the focus to keep RL ahead of the pack. Innovation will be the winner on the day

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Mouse I agree that Space x taking costs out of their operation is something Rocket Lab needs to be aware of. But for it to impact other than at the margin Space X would have to be prepared to get into a price war - why would they want to and of course for Rocket Lab not to be in a position to respond. I expect Rocket Lab will be taking costs out of their operations over time also.

My guess is the most rationale response is for both businesses to co-exist and only compete at the margins. Otherwise it is the customer that will capture all the value of innovation.

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Go Go and Go.
There is nothing but good to be said about this whole venture.

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full video footage or it didn't happen?!

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Maybe it's just me.....but whenever I see *Sir Michael Fay's* name associated with anything, I still wince.

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When I talked to Peter Beck a while ago he said that recovering the rocket was not economic at the moment. There must be a trade-off between the extra weight of everything needed to recover the rocket and the loss of payload capability. As payload revenue is something like $1000 per ounce (roughly the satellite's weight in gold) you probably get a better return from maximising payload and sacrificing the first stage.

But he did admit that it was something in their mind for the future.

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That logic only works if the launch provider has customers to start with.
At the moment Spacex is gaining customers from the competition because they are the cheapest.
The competitors to Spacex may be able to take more payload to orbit for a given rocket size but it wont do them much good if they have no customers because they have the most expensive expendable rocket.
Rocket Lab may have a lot of customers at the moment but usually the contracts are written in such a way that customers have alternative rocket companies they can use if the original launch provider is late, as often happens in the rocket business.

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Agog as to what he's achieved in such a short 'space' of time; however, there's a huge gulf between getting a rocket into space - then into orbit - and being able to deploy a payload.

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only an 8 month gulf as it turns out!!

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Sorry mouse but you really aren't as knowledgeable about all this as you seem to think you are.

Firstly, the whole point of Rocket Lab is cheap, quick and disposable. Which leads to the second point, do you think SpaceX rockets just land and go straight to the factory to be strapped onto their next payload?

The fact they have only flown a second hand rocket once might help you answer. It's not going to be cheap or easy. Yes, over time costs will come down, but they are still significant.

Rocket Lab doesn't advertise itself as being the cheapest per kg or whatever. CubeSat makers don't necessarily care about paying $50k Vs $100k if it means they are guaranteed to get on a rocket in 6 months Vs maybe 2 years if they are lucky.

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Hi Sam
Can you tell me whether the lox tank in the Electron has a liner? I've looked at the photo at the top of this page and there seems to be a silver lining on the inside of a rocket component which got me wondering about the lox tank. If the lox tank does not have a lining that would be a huge advance because it would save so much weight. Even Elon Musk is saying that his new Mars rocket, a plastic one like Electron, will probably have to have a liner or spray on the inside of his tank to stop oxygen from reacting with the plastic structure and going boom.
Those comments about rapid reuseability are the sorts of comments that Elon Musk makes all the time.
He believes in those statements. He wont be able to get to mars otherwise as it will cost too much to create all those one off boosters that end up in the ocean. He seems to be making progress which may be what is creating nervousness in the rest of the launch industry.
As to why they took so long to refly their flight proven booster?
1)They had a rocket go boom because lox reacted with a carbon over wrap pressure vessel and that was their first priority to fix?
2) Customers had to agree to fly on the flight proven booster and no one wanted to be first?
3)Customers wanted a bigger discount from spacex and negotiations dragged on?
4)It was an industry first and it just took too long to convince every one who had questions about reuseability?
I know they had to replace those aluminium paddles that sometimes catch fire and also do work on the heat protection at the base of the rocket. The new paddles will be made out of titanium.
The new version of the falcon is designed to fix those problems.
I know that when the Shuttle flew people were worried about electrical wires losing insulation due to the vibration and causing a short. Years ago a rocket failed at the cape due to wires shorting. I'm not sure if that is still an issue or has been designed out.
Can you point to anything specific and technical that delayed them?

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Hi Sam - I agree 100%. Electron rocket designed to be cheap(ish), cheerful and flexible. Reusability comes at a cost and many believe it's not viable anyway as adds too much to complexity and weight. Look at the "reusable" space shuttle which cost an average of $1 billion per launch.

I admire SpaceX but my belief is that we'll never have true reusabiliy until there's some sort of winged craft powered by rocket/jet engine combined eg British Skylon project which may never work anyway due to technical difficulties.

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"true reusability" will be achieved without wings with the BFR as it will be able to reuse both stages. But, even with this wasn't true, wings are not very helpfull for SpaceX since its primary goal is to colonize Mars and there are no runways on mars.

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Peter & co have come so far so quickly - they deserve our genuine support. Recognising the journey has a way to go yet - what great flag bearers for our little part of the world. I hope they crack it!
And while an obvious ultimate goal - to note that the costs of resusability will always well exceed the fuel costs alone.

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One company starts up a new industry in NZ, 200 employees. Government starts up a new department to 'regulate' the new industry 10 employees ... sounds about right.

200 guys doing something useful, 10 guys figuring out how they can create issues and justify their ticket-clipping jobs worth.

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What an audacious goal and achievement. That they have conceived and executed so far in such a short period of time, with no feeder industry, and at such a low cost, is the real measure here. Well done to Peter, and his backers.

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For New Zealand's sake it would be awesome to see Rocket Lab succeed in the long run.

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I am so proud of the achievements made by Rocket Lab in such a short timeframe. I don't think many of the commenters above appreciate the challenges and difficulties. Many nations spent billions and have yet to have an original working rocket design to show for.

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No one should under-estimate this outstanding group of innovators or their ability through flexibility to meet what the market requires.
If we look at their vehicle design and all it's firsts: , battery powered engines, 3D printed components and the extensive use of Carbon in "Electrons" construction,(not to mention those they haven't told us about) then add in the build and test time, this is a truly remarkable achievement.
With 50% of initial test flights failing, it would appear to me that they have built a very strong and stable delivery vehicle that performed better than everyone's expectations except theirs. Anyone can be a visionary, but it takes a special kind of person to see those visions come to fruition through belief, determination and bloody hard work. Individuals such as Burt Munro and John Britten have achieved these goals in the past but Peter Beck must have gathered some remarkable young people around him to reach this point. It's amazing what people can contribute when given the opportunity.
It would be very naive to think that Rocketlab could not adapt to market, design and commercial interests in the future.

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What a fantastic result. Congratulations to everyone involved and following on from our fantastic work in the Americas Cup another fabulous piece of Kiwi engineering.

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