By Laura Baker
Boldly going where no Kiwi has gone before, local company Rocket Lab is taking one giant leap forward for New Zealand, venturing into the world of space exploration, and they’re turning plenty of heads as they go.
The stroke of genius which has caught the eye of big international players is the newest rocket, the Electron. Rocket Lab CEO and founder, Peter Beck says the Electron is set to revolutionise how businesses access and use satellites
Ever since the very first rocket launch, accessing space has been renowned for being immensely expensive. Apollo launched on average two times a year and cost $3.6 billion per flight.
It was widely assumed, as time and technology developed, space exploration would become more affordable and accessible, but largely this has not been the case. Rocket programmes have made little new advances in technology.
Those who want to launch a satellite into space still face on average a two year wait to launch and more
than $130 million to purchase a rocket. A hassle and a price which has put space out of reach for all but a few.
Rocket Lab is the first company in the world to design a rocket which addresses these deterring factors. The Electron costs $4.9 million, that’s a 95 percent reduction in the cost of the average launch today. It can put a satellite into orbit using the same amount of fuel that it takes a jetliner to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Plus it is capable of launching as often as the client wants.
This rocket is a dedicated launch vehicle whit a sole purpose to reach and utilise space. Now satellite launches are a plausible option for almost any business; space is open for business.
Peter’s fascination in space and rocket building has been a life long passion and pursuit. His interest in rockets was sparked at a young age and he hasn’t looked back.
He started building rockets at high school, rather rudimentary ones, but rockets nonetheless. As he progressed through school and into his career he built bigger and bigger rockets capable of more sophisticated functions.
Undeterred by the fact there are no relevant qualifications in New Zealand for space rocket engineering, Peter followed his dream regardless. His journey took him to the USA, the major hub of space exploration, and home to dozens of rocket manufactures. He spent a month overseas meeting all of the companies he had spent years corresponding with, but a flaw in all of the companies’ objectives was clear.
“It quickly became apparent that while the companies were good at what they do, they weren’t working on what I thought was really important, which is properly commercialising space. If you want to build a weapon then that’s great, but if you want to really make a big difference in the way that space is used and accessed, then that isn’t the way to do it.
Peter started Rocket Lab in 2007, a move that put his goal of commercialising space into action. At the time he wasn’t sure he was going to build a rocket like Electron, but what he was sure about was that he needed to find a much more cost-effective way to access space in a regular time-frame in order for his business to be successful.
“Everything we’ve done to date within the company has been working towards these goals. I don’t think there was a particular eureka moment when we knew it was going to happen, it was more of a long hard slog to get to
New Zealand is well-known for a number of industries including farming, dairy, tourism and even film making, but the space exploration industry is yet to make a name for itself; in fact before Rocket Lab hit the scene seven years ago there was absolute no space industry of any kind in the country.
So before Rocket Lab could break Electron through the atmosphere and into space, they had to break into the market – not an easy task when there isn’t a local market. Getting Rocket Lab off the ground was Peter’s first mission and in order for the business to take flight, he needed cash to fuel it.
From day one 100 percent of the revenue had to be from exports. But trying to export a rocket to aerospace giants out of a country that didn’t have any history in the commercial space industry and a company that didn’t have reputation was a tough job. “You have to have something really special for those guys to take note of you.”
Rocket Lab faced many challenges in its early years of development, as Peter explains. “There is no space industry in New Zealand; we are kind of it. So when it came to people’s perceptions of starting and running a commercial rocket business in New Zealand we received a lot of stigma. We were told it was the domain of big countries such as America and powerful governments, which was a constant battle we had to deal with.
“Many, many times, especially when we first began, we were told we couldn’t do anything of any significance in New Zealand. To convince those people that they were wrong and New Zealand can actually punch above its weight in this area was definitely one of the challenges.”
Overcoming the harsh perceptions of a critical public and commercial space industry was not the only obstacle they had to overcome. Peter says developing and engineering rockets is hard, even from an engineer’s point of view.
“It’s a really hard thing to do; there is a reason why it’s called rocket science.”
To build the ultimate commercial rocket, Peter had to search far and wide to find a team that was up to the job. He employed some staff from New Zealand, but in many cases he had to find people from outside of the country. “We imported some of the best space guys there are from around the world to take on our projects, which are significantly difficult.”
The experts Peter recruited have made huge leaps and bounds in the construction of the rocket, but Peter says there is still a lot of development and testing to be done before Electron can make its maiden voyage, which is scheduled for the end of next year.
“It’s a matter of building it and going through a big test flight campaign and then certifying it and finally serving our customers.”
Engineering the rocket has been a difficult task and they are still designing and building pieces of it. They have custom-made everything from the large launch vehicle, the full carbon composite structures, the rocket propulsion systems and the avionics.
“There is nothing you can buy off the shelf – you have to build absolutely everything from scratch. Everything we’ve built has had to be optimised and capable of performing at extreme levels. It’s not like we can just go down to a contractor and buy rocket bits – they just don’t exist anywhere in the world.”
Rocket Lab will launch Electron from New Zealand, but are still evaluating launch site options, with Mercury Island one of the top contenders.
Once Electron is in full running order, the aim is for one launch a week. “If we can do one a week then we’ll seriously change the landscape of the space industry. America went to space 19 times last year in total, so if New Zealand can do one a week, then we’ll have the most amount of stuff launched into space per year in the industry for sure.”
While it may not have made its first flight into space yet, customers are already lining up to have the Electron fire their satellite into orbit. It is currently on the market and Rocket Lab has more than 30 customers signed up on the launch manifest.
The majority of customers plan to send earth observation satellites into space. These satellites are designed to monitor weather patterns, observe crops and feed images into Google Earth.
One of a kind
So why are customers lining up for their spot on the launch pad? It’s because the Electron is truly one of a kind, unlike any rocket ever designed. Europe, China, India and America all have developed rocket launch programmes, but none quite like this one.
“We are certainly viewed as the most advanced programme in the world at the moment; it’s great for the company, but it has been hard earned.”
Launch vehicles throughout history have been typically very large and even the smallest models ever built are still at least two times larger than the Electron. Its compact size is the key to its success. The small-scale design translates in fewer materials required and a simpler manufacturing process wall adds up to less cost to the customer.
“Typically the majority of space vehicles are repurposed missiles. This is the first time that somebody has stepped back and said ‘lets not repurpose a missile, lets actually start from a clean sheet of paper and create something that is designed for mass manufacture and is designed to do what the task in front of it is’.
“This rocket may be small, but it’s up for the big job at hand.”