10 things about Rocket Lab

The $US1 billion company that's single-handedly creating a local aerospace industry. PLUS how overseas media reported Thursday's launch.

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


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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