ROCKET LAD

New Zealand’s good for many things: sheep, cows, epic film lo­ca­tions. Now add rocket launches, weekly, from some­where in the South Is­land. Peter Beck wants New Zealand to be­come a global satel­lite launch cen­tre. Al­ways has. Vin­cent Heeringa meets the man

Idealog - - FRONT PAGE - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY ALIS­TAIR GUTHRIE

By next year Peter Beck plans to send a satel­lite into space. Ev­ery week. From the South Is­land. Here’s how.

IT’S NOT OF­TEN your boy­hood dream comes true in your own backyard, es­pe­cially if your dream is to blast rock­ets into space. Think of such things and your mind prob­a­bly goes to Nasa or Rus­sia or per­haps one of those bar­ren-look­ing launch pads in a dusty Mid­dle-Eastern land­scape. Or Thun­der­birds and their mys­te­ri­ous trop­i­cal is­land.

But the stars have turned favourably for South­lander and rocket en­thu­si­ast Peter Beck.

“If the best place in the world to launch rock­ets was in the mid­dle of a desert that’s where I’d be – it’s that sim­ple. But it turns out that launch­ing satel­lites into space is best done from right here, in New Zealand.”

Now that is a happy co­in­ci­dence, be­cause the Kiwi rocket pi­o­neer, who has at­tracted global in­vest­ment into what seems like a hare-brained scheme, wants to do just one thing: launch rock­ets and lots of them. Al­ways has.

In the next few months we’ll know ex­actly where his com­pany Rock­et­lab plans to build its launch fa­cil­ity. The best guesses are some­where re­mote in the South Is­land. On re­flec­tion, it’s an ob­vi­ous lo­ca­tion.

“When we shoot, there’s noth­ing there: no air traf­fic, no pop­u­la­tion, no ship­ping, just noth­ing. In Amer­ica, if you said you wanted to launch a satel­lite once a week they’d laugh at you be­cause there’s ship­ping, there’s a ton of flights, there’s peo­ple, there’s ev­ery­thing ev­ery­where. So New Zealand’s only ad­van­tage of be­ing a small is­land na­tion in the mid­dle of nowhere is if you want to launch rock­ets. It’s per­fect!”

Per­fect wasn’t al­ways how Beck de­scribed it. When he packed his bags in 2007 for the trip of a life­time to Nasa and Lock­heed Martin he dis­cov­ered not the labs of his boy­hood dreams but an in­dus­try mori­bund in bu­reau­cracy and spi­ralling costs. “I started talk­ing to these guys and they go ‘You don't want to work here’. I re­alised that I was just go­ing to be a tiny gear in a gi­ant bu­reau­cratic ma­chine. And even if I made it re­ally re­ally big in one of these or­gan­i­sa­tions then I was still not go­ing to do what I wanted – launch rock­ets.”

De­pressed, he caught a plane home. “I was, like, ‘Wow, this is my child­hood dream and it’s just not pan­ning out’.”

But they make kids tough in South­land. And disobe­di­ent too. Aboard the flight, he Googled a com­pany name and de­signed a logo and reg­is­tered his com­pany as soon as he landed. “About six months later I quit my job and started Rock­et­lab and that was that.”

He makes it sound so easy. By the end of this year, Beck plans to send his first pay­load into space, just the sec­ond non-gov­ern­ment funded com­pany ever to do so. Af­ter that, he says, there are 30 or so cus­tomers lined up to launch their small satel­lites. Plans are for one launch a month in 2016, and then one a week in 2017. The com­pany claims it will even­tu­ally han­dle 100 launches a year. “Space is open for busi­ness,” Beck says. And at $US5 mil­lion a shot, busi­ness could be a blast.

MIS­SION POS­SI­BLE

With his cherub-like face, frizzy hair and un­in­ter­rupt­able pat­ter, Beck ticks all the boxes of the mad sci­en­tist. Plus there’s the im­pa­tience of a man on a mis­sion.

Peo­ple just don’t look up enough, he rails. “I’m con­stantly sur­prised at how lit­tle peo­ple un­der­stand where they live. They might say ‘I live in this sub­urb in this city and in this coun­try’ but no­body thinks of them­selves as liv­ing in a so­lar sys­tem. If you ask the av­er­age per­son to name the plan­ets, they can’t. I mean, can you?”

It sounds like a test so I rat­tle off all the plan­ets I can re­mem­ber (“Pluto’s not a planet, it’s a ball of ice!” I say, remembering some­thing from the news) and Beck looks slightly dis­ap­pointed. “Okay so you might know more than most, though you got the or­der wrong.”

Space mat­ters. And it has mat­tered a long time for the 38-year- old.

Beck built his own te­le­scope as a child, fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of his fa­ther Rus­sell, who con­structed a large te­le­scope for the South­land mu­seum when he was just 18 (it's still in use). Rus­sell later be­came the mu­seum di­rec­tor and Peter re­mem­bers “at about six or seven go­ing to stuffy old As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety meet­ings at the mu­seum where you've got all these boffins sit­ting around drink­ing tea talk­ing about space and tele­scopes. A lot of these guys had PhDs and re­ally knew their stuff. I found it ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nat­ing and prob­a­bly un­der­stood 5% of what was be­ing said. But I was hooked.” »

All that talk could have made Beck an aca­demic but he got his hands dirty in the fam­ily work­shop, car­ry­ing on a pas­sion that started with his grand­fa­ther who would lend tools to another fa­mous South­land tin­kerer, Burt Munro of The World’s Fastest In­dian fame. “Burt used to come into my grand­fa­ther’s work­shop and use his equip­ment and make a hell of a mess and leave,” Beck says.

En­gi­neer­ing runs in the fam­ily. Be­fore the mu­seum Peter's dad, Rus­sell, was an engi­neer. Peter’s mid­dle brother An­drew is a me­chan­i­cal engi­neer and elec­ti­cian; his old­est brother John runs a car­yard by day and is a com­petive mo­tor­cy­clist in the week­end. Cousin David still runs Beck In­dus­tries, the en­gi­neer­ing shop set up by Peter’s un­cle Doug. Their spe­cial­ity: out­door vac­uum clean­ers.

The fam­ily garage was where the boys built gokarts and then, in their teenage years, souped up their Mi­nis. “They all mod­i­fied our Mi­nis,” re­calls Rus­sell. “They’re easy to work on and ac­tu­ally pretty much any­thing you do im­proves them. Peter was de­ter­mined to make his go faster.”

The trend con­tin­ued at James Hargest Col­lege in In­ver­cargill, where the met­al­work teacher “threw him the keys to the work­shop” (says David) and then at Dunedin’s Fisher & Paykel, where he com­pleted a tool-mak­ing ap­pren­tice­ship and learned (says Rus­sell) “how to com­bine en­gi­neer­ing and de­sign. He’s very pre­cise – ev­ery­thing al­ways has to work and look good, with Peter.”

It’s also where, in 2000, with gen­er­ous help from his col­leagues at F&P, he built a rock­et­pow­ered bi­cy­cle that he demon­strated to the be­mused public with a 140 kph blast down Dunedin’s Princes Street.

“At F&P they would give me lumps of ti­ta­nium and just write them off as ap­pren­tice-train­ing projects. I'd build my rock­ets at night us­ing their work­shops. And when I moved into a de­sign role I did sim­u­la­tions on rocket noz­zles, op­ti­mis­ing the flow for rocket fu­els.”

Next, Beck landed a job at In­dus­trial Re­search Ltd in Par­nell, Auck­land (now merged into Cal­laghan In­no­va­tion), where he de­vel­oped a deep un­der­stand­ing of met­als and their strengths, and learned how to test his ideas. And his rock­ets. As at F&P, IRL man­agers turned a benef­i­cent blind eye to his af­ter-hours ex­per­i­ments.

“It’s al­ways been about the rocket, there’s never been a ques­tion re­ally – even at high school. I re­mem­ber I failed a ca­reers as­sess­ment test and they needed to talk to my par­ents about it. I was so de­fined about what I wanted to do and the test didn't al­low for that.” »

ROCKET MAD

“Stick to the day job,” the joke goes. That’s good ad­vice for most of us. But when Beck quit his job he at­tracted more than the usual bunch of fam­ily and fools.

“Lots of peo­ple have pas­sion for things and don’t fol­low through. Peter’s pas­sion is rock­ets – but he’s also got the en­gi­neer­ing skills. He can see it through.”

That’s Alan John­ston, the build­ing man­ager of IRL’s Bal­four St premises, who shoul­der-tapped the young en­tre­pre­neur to oc­cupy empty space on the sec­ond floor. “There weren’t many places in Auck­land that young en­trepreneurs could go for this kind of hi-tech man­u­fac­tur­ing. So I charged him a low rent and al­lowed him to use the equip­ment, es­pe­cially the labs. I didn’t re­ally ask per­mis­sion from HQ. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Another early sup­porter was Mark Rocket, the in­ter­net en­tre­pre­neur and space-nut who changed his name by deed poll from Mark Stevens and re­ceived media cov­er­age as the first Kiwi to join Vir­gin Galac­tic’s space tourism pro­gramme. Beck ap­proached Rocket and the two hit it off, with the lat­ter adding seed cap­i­tal and be­com­ing a 50% owner un­til he ex­ited in 2011.

“We had a sim­i­lar vi­sion,” says Rocket. “We be­lieve a space in­dus­try can emerge from New Zealand. In those first four years we worked hard to solve re­ally dif­fi­cult prob­lems. But Peter’s got a lot of de­ter­mi­na­tion and the abil­ity to over­come tech­ni­cal hur­dles.”

The pair at­tracted another cu­ri­ous sup­porter, Sir Michael Fay, the mer­chant banker in­fa­mous for his in­volve­ment in a 1990s scan­dal known as the Wine Box en­quiry. Fay’s name, long van­ished from the press, emerged like a blast from the past when he pro­vided his Great Mer­cury Is­land for a maiden test flight.

“We asked Sir Michael if we could launch off his is­land, and he just said ‘any­thing you need, you've got’,” re­calls Beck. “And he gave us his he­li­copters, barges, house, chef – ev­ery­thing was ours. Ev­ery time we’ve launched out at Great Mer­cury Is­land, it’s al­ways been the way. We’ve done a num­ber of re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant demon­stra­tion launches to re­ally im­por­tant peo­ple and, you know Michael’s he­li­copter comes and picks them up and there’s food laid on, there’s ev­ery­thing.”

The sup­port ex­tended be­yond in­di­vid­u­als. “Ev­ery­one is root­ing for us. I think it’s very Kiwi that no mat­ter who we talk to, ev­ery­body is root­ing for us and wants us to suc­ceed. And you know, we talked to Civil Avi­a­tion and they bent over back­wards to help us. We talked to »

Fired up: Cen­tral to Rock­et­lab's suc­cess is the in­no­va­tion in en­gine tech­nol­ogy and car­bon-fi­bre con­struc­tion. If it's hard to be­lieve this sort of thing hap­pens in New Zealand, look back: Beck's knowl­edge of ma­te­ri­als tech­nol­ogy was honed at IRL, the sleepy Crown Re­search In­sti­tute, now part of Cal­laghan.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.