Peter Beck's new rocket, the Electron, contains at least four novel elements, compared to other satellite launch rockets:
Carbon-fibre construction makes it about as heavy as a Mini Cooper – and significantly lighter than conventional rockets;
The Rutherford engine employs battery-powered electric motors to drive its turbopumps. It’s also the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine with all its primary parts created using 3D printing;
A ‘plug & play' payload system makes it easier for clients to integrate their satellites into the Electron, using their own staff and with multiple payloads at the ready;
Proprietary electronics: the avionics system in the original Space Shuttle weighed about 4500kg, excluding cabling. Electron’s avionics system weighs just 8.6kg.
"IN THE NEXT DECADE YOU'R E GOING TO SEE SPACE CHANGE FROM BEING A GOVERNMENTCONTROLLED DOMAIN, TO COMMERCIAL. IT’S GOVERNMENT RAILROAD VERSUS FEDEX VANS . IT’S JUST AWESOME. "
central Government and they've always bent over backwards and helped us.” I suggest that it’s unusual, this kind of support. “Really?” Beck asks. “Well, it’s the honest truth and anywhere from the mayors of the cities where we’re trying to build launch sites, to well anybody. We’ve never ever hit a brick wall from any regulators or people in power.”
The support came to a dramatic, and media-propelled, climax at 2:28pm on November 30, 2009, when TV3 broadcast the maiden flight of Atea 1, Rocketlab’s prototype rocket. After technical delays (including a dash to a local mechanic) Atea, also named Manu Karere, blasted into a clear sky.
“It was an amazing sight and sound to behold,” wrote Mark Rocket in 2011. “The rocket flew beautifully and powerfully into the sky, the throaty roar of the hybrid rocket engine reverberating over the island. The spectators were elated and tears of joy erupted. Some were crying from the drama of the day’s events and the profoundness of the experience.”
Beck can be seen leaping and yelling like a loon on the TV footage.
The nice lady at the Rocketlab reception says I can’t carry my cell-phone in the building. “Top secret,” she says. “But take a seat, there’s a new Woman's Day there.”
Six years after that initial launch, and the bland, concrete office near Auckland’s airport hardly looks like the HQ of a pioneering satellite company. I imagine that in the US, something like Rocketlab would be barricaded with heavy fences and heavier guards. A reporter from a no-name magazine would certainly have trouble getting access to its boss. In New Zealand you just pick up the phone.
It makes Rocketlab’s success all the more remarkable.
With just three staff at the time (2010), Rocketlab won contracts with international firms for aerospace work. In particular from DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is attributed with the invention of technologies such as GPS, the CDMA cell phone network and Apranet, the precursor of the internet. Beck won’t say what Rocketlab worked on, but the money flowed and the credibility built, along with the staff.
“By 2011, I sort of felt that we’d reached the point where we had enough credibility within the industry to do what I really wanted. It was kind of a crossroads, because we could have gone down the aerospace contractor road but I’m absolutely negatively inspired by doing that.”
So he hit the drawing board again and laid plans for Electron, the rocket that he hopes will underpin the launch business (see “The technology” on page 37).
Again, the tributes and support flowed. “I was inspired by his audacity,” says Warehouse founder Stephen Tindall, whose K1W1 fund invested in October 2013, along with the Government’s Callaghan Innovation.
Also inspired was Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and one of Silicon Valley’s most respected venture capitalists. Khosla’s investment provided not just much-needed capital, but global credibility.
“We were kind of lucky with Khosla in the fact that they had previously invested in [microsatellite Company] Sky Box, sold last year to Google. So they had experienced firsthand the issues of getting a small satellite in orbit. Launch is the single hardest thing for small satellite companies.”
There are dozens of satellite launches every year but what appealed to Khosla was the new approach to an old problem. So far most of the commercial effort has gone into satellite technology, with only a handful of companies, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, reinventing launch. “What’s normally done in this industry is that you take a heritage Russian rocket motor from here, and a heritage tank from over there, and you put them all together. But to start from scratch and assume there are no constraints is a new approach.”
In that sense, the New Zealand-ness is part of Rocketlab's success. A country with no heritage in space is exactly where you’d expect ground-breaking innovation to come from. Khosla’s other investments in New Zealand are similar outliers: Lanzatech, the waste-toenergy company started by Sean Simpson, and Biodiscovery NZ, a biotech company extracting plant microbes.
Rocketlab’s solution, the Electron, is novel. The combination of a carbon-fibre, recoverable rocket, a dual electric/dry fuel engine, secretsauce electronics and an end-to-end launch facility in New Zealand means Beck reckons he can slash the price of launch from about $US130 million to $US4.9 million. That saving means the much-hyped shift from government-dominated space travel to industry-led might finally happen.
The Electron keeps winning impressive support. In March this year, Rocketlab conducted its second formal funding round, Series B, convincing Khosla and K1W1 to reinvest. It also added two industry heavyweights: Bessemer Venture Partners, one the oldest venture capital firms in the world (and the money men behind global success stories such as Staples, International Paper, Skype and Shopify); and Lockheed Martin, major supplier to military and space programmes.
“Rocketab’s work could have application in a number of aerospace domains and we look forward to working with them to complement our overall efforts in small lift capabilities and hypersonic flight technologies,” says Lockheed’s press release.
Beck believes the investment comes because the market is ready. “In the next decade you're going to see space change from being a government- controlled domain, to commercial. It’s government railroad versus FedEx vans. It’s just awesome.”
But the support also reflects a ridiculous dream. From its early days as a cheap tenant in Balfour Street to its current 50 or so international staff, Rocketlab is a testament to Beck’s passion and skill – and a textbook example of how it takes a village to raise a child.
From a grandfather who encouraged play in his workshop, to tolerant employers and enthusiastic amateurs giving money, helicopters, media crews and chefs, the journey to space from Aotearoa might be one for us all to claim as our own.
Watch this space.
Perfectly formed: The compact size of the Rutherford engine, combined with the lightweight carbon-fibre rocket means small satellites (some as small as a lunchbox) can be deployed into low-Earth orbit for under $5million, about 26-times cheaper than current alternatives.
On board: Beck has won more than a sympathy vote, securing millions in funding from backers such as Khosla Ventures, Lockheed Martin, BVP and Stephen Tindall's K1W1. "I was inspired by his audacity," says Tindall ( pictured with Beck, above (left)).