Rocket Lab has liftoff but doesn't make it to orbit

A still from a video of this afternoon's liftoff (@TheSpaceGal)

LATEST: Rocket Lab reveals result of investigation

UPDATE: 5.15pm: Rocket Labs has just released the following statement, confirming the source who told NBR the Electron rocket had a successful launch, but did not reach orbit (the insider added the rocket had to be "terminated" after safety officials thought it had veered too far off course:

Electron lifted off at 16:20 NZST from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. It was the first orbital-class rocket launched from from a private launch site in the world.

“It has been an incredible day and I’m immensely proud of our talented team,” said Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab. “We’re one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years. We’ve worked tirelessly to get to this point. We’ve developed everything inhouse, built the world’s first private orbital launch range, and we’ve done it with a small team.

“It was a great flight. We had a great first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition and fairing separation. We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why. However, reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our programme, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business,” says Beck.

Over the coming weeks, Rocket Lab’s engineers in Los Angeles and Auckland, New Zealand will work through the 25,000 data channels that were collected during the launch. The results will inform measures taken to optimise the vehicle.

“We have learnt so much through this test launch and will learn even more in the weeks to come. We’re committed to making space accessible and this is a phenomenal milestone in that journey. The applications doing this will open up are endless. Known applications include improved weather reporting, internet from space, natural disaster prediction, up-to-date maritime data as well as search and rescue services,” Beck says.

Today’s launch was the first of three test flights scheduled for this year. Rocket Lab will target getting to orbit on the second test and look to maximise the payload the rocket can carry.

At full production, Rocket Lab expects to launch more than 50 times a year, and is regulated to launch up to 120 times a year. In comparison, there were 22 launches last year from the US, and 82 internationally.

Rocket Lab’s commercial phase will see Electron fly already-signed customers including NASA, Spire, Planet, Moon Express and Spaceflight.


UPDATE May 25, 4.45pm: Rocket Lab has staged a successful test launch from the Mahia Peninsula.

The company has yet to comment in detail on the test launch – the first of either two or three test flights, depending on results – and it is not yet clear if its test payload made it to low earth orbit.

One source tells NBR the flight went too far off course and had to be terminated. 

Additionally, the same person who tweeted a video of the launch, Emily Calandrelli (a producer for the new Netflix science series Bill Nye Saves the World), issued a follow-up post saying "For those asking, not sure if it went orbital. Survived max Q. Vid feed cut out shortly after."

Rocket Lab has yet to reply to a request for comment.

NBR's most recent communication from Rocket Lab was at 4.15pm when communications manager Catherine Moreau said, "The team is continuing to work on it. The launch window closes at 5pm."

Just minutes later, documentary maker and videographer Damien Christie told NBR he had heard from a reliable source there had been a successful launch.

Then came a tweet from a person on the scene showing footage of a successful launch (view it here) and confirmation from the company's official account that they had "made it to space."


Rocket Lab's private equity value — already at $US1 billion — may have just gone up a notch. If so that will be good for its heavy hitter US investors, including Lockheed Martin, and locals including Mr Beck and NBR Rich Lister Sir Stephen Tindall.

The launch came on day four of a 10-day launch window after three days of weather-related delays.

Scroll down for NBR's backgrounder on Rocket Lab, the investors behind it, and the commercial launches to come.

EARLIER: Rocket Lab counts down to first test launch

May 15: Rocket Lab is planning the first test flight of its Electron rocket as soon as Monday when a 10-day launch window will open.

Founder and chief executive Peter Beck says there will probably be three test launches before commercial flights begin later this year.

He tells NBR Radio’s Grant Walker that restricted timeframes are used for tests because there is so much to co-ordinate and keep coordinated, from about 200 people who will work on the flight to keeping tabs on sea, air and even space traffic.

While watchers are used to Elon Musk’s Space X living in public, there is a bit of Kiwi reticence around Rocket Lab, at least at this point.

There will be no video live stream of the maiden test launch (though Rocket Lab will take video and it should be available later). And there will be no viewing platform.

Mr Beck says once commercial flights start, live stream and live viewing options will be added.

The test flight will launch a satellite carrying Rocket Lab instrumentation into low Earth orbit.

Rocket Lab raised $US75 million in its latest funding round (its fourth), and is now claiming a private equity value of more than $US1 billion.

Rocket Lab's first launch complex is on the Mahia Peninsula, between Gisborne and Napier, where an Electron rocket is already on the launch pad ready for the first test flight (click to zoom). The company plans to build other launch sites, founder Peter Beck says. Some will be outside New Zealand.

Mr Beck says the money will be used to increase production of his company’s 18m, Electron rocket, which can take small satellites into low earth orbit of the (by aerospace terms) bargain price of $US5 million.

“We have a number of commercial missions we need to get out this year. We have a NASA mission that needs to fly. We also have a Moon Express mission that needs to fly by the end of this year.”

If all goes to plan, there will be seven flights this year and 18 next year. To put that in context, there were 19 rocket launches in the US last year, Mr Beck says.

“Demand is extreme,” he adds.

“We’ve got a two-year backlog we want to start chipping away at.”

Although it's now registered in the US, with a corporate office in LA and shareholders like Lockheed Martin, most of Rocket Lab's 200 or so staff are still located in New Zealand — spread between its facility near Auckland Airport and Mahia.Click to zoom.

US heavy hitters
The Auckland-founded Rocket Lab is a success story but also one that’s being pulled inexorably into a US orbit.

The company is now incorporated in the US and based in Los Angeles, where it will shortly open a new facility because manufacturing will shortly be maxed out in New Zealand.

It will also build more launchpads but “I don’t think we’d build at other sites around New Zealand,” Mr Beck says.

“We’re looking at equatorial sites and sites in the US to meet our demand.”

Rocket Lab's secret sauce is its Rutherford Engine. Rutherford is a state-of-the-art oxygen and kerosene pump fed engine specifically designed from scratch for Electron, using an entirely new propulsion cycle, the company says. A unique feature of Rutherford is the high-performance electric propellant pumps that reduce mass and replace hardware with software. Rutherford is the first engine of its kind to use 3D printing for all primary components. These features are world firsts for a high-performance liquid rocket engine with propellants that are fed by electric turbopumps, Rocket Lab says. The production-focused design allows Electron launch vehicles to be built and satellites launched at an unprecedented frequency.

Already, Rocket Lab has access to NASA's Cape Canaveral launch site via a partnership agreement with the US space agency, plus a private launchpad in Alaska.

Its share register has also become progressively less Kiwi since it was founded by Mr Beck in 2006. While Sir Stephen Tindall’s K1W1 was an early backer, other investors have been the US heavy hitters Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners and military giant Lockheed Martin. Mr Beck also has a holding.

In the workshop in Auckland.

Final assembly.

The newcomers
The $US75 million funding round announced last month was led by Silicon Valley/San Francisco-based firm Data Collective, a VC outfit whose other investments include Rocket Lab customer Planet – a supplier of satellite imagery.

It was also supported by another newcomer, the Chicago-based Promus Ventures, while Bessemer, Khosla and K1W1 chipped in further funds.

In all, Rocket Lab has now raised $US148 million.

It refused to give NBR a breakdown of shareholdings pre or post the latest raise.

Ready for erection.

Fight with Space X for talent
How many staff does Rocket Lab have today?

“I should probably know this,” Mr Beck says during an NBR Radio interview. It’s hard to keep tabs, he says, as Rocket Lab is hiring three to four staff a week between Auckland and Los Angeles.

A spokesman later said:“Over the next few months we’re likely to range between 150 and 200 employees."

Of those “10 to 20” are management staff based in California. The balance are working at the company’s facility in Mangere beside Auckland airport or at Mahia.

Rocket Lab is not directly competing with Elon Musk’s heavier-lifting Space X for launch business but Mr Beck says there is a fierce fight for a limited number of skilled staff. To land the right rocket scientist, his company will pay to relocate their whole family to New Zealand.

Rocket Lab recruits aerospace engineers from around the world but is also sponsoring a PhD course at Canterbury University to foster local talent.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce makes final inspections of an Electron. Rocket Lab's rise prompted MBIE to introduce new space regulations.

A full pipeline
A 2016  report by Sapere Research Group said the NZ aerospace industry founded by Rocket Lab would contribute between $600 million and $1.55 billion to the economy over the next two decades.

Rocket Lab has not put a dollar value on any of its contracts but NASA says its contract, which covers one flight plus services, is worth $US6.9 million.

Other customers in the pipeline include Moon Express, which has booked three launches as part of its plan to ultimately send a robotic probe to the lunar surface, and satellite imagery outfit Planet. Rocket Lab's "rideshare" model means more than one customer can share a flight, as long as they can all be accommodated within the Electron's 150kg payload.

“We weren’t expecting to see such demand for a vehicle that hasn’t even flown. Generally speaking, the space industry is very, very conservative. But it’s a testament to the team and the product that we’ve had customers pile on and take up two years of manifest. It’s a quality problem to have.”

A stack test from May 2016.

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