THE TECH­NOL­OGY

Idealog - - PROFILE -

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.

UN­DER WRAPS

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)).

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