Shat­ner’s pay­load pro­posal grounded

Rocket Lab’s huge new fac­tory is an­other step towards its launch-a-week target, writes Chris Keall

Weekend Herald - - News - Photo / File Chris Keall

Star Trek ac­tor Wil­liam Shat­ner went boldly into the far be­yond yes­ter­day , sug­gest­ing putting Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern’s baby into space.

The 87-year-old, who played the cap­tain of the USS En­ter­prise, James T. Kirk, in the sci­ence fic­tion fran­chise, floated the idea at the open­ing of Rocket Lab’s new fac­tory in Mt Welling­ton.

Shat­ner mused: “Elon Musk, so he puts a rocket up, and he puts a car up, the Prime Min­is­ter has a baby, so why don’t we put the baby up, but think how much bet­ter New Zealand’s space pro­gramme would be, in­stead of a car, how about a baby?” Ardern wasn’t so keen on the idea. “I don’t think we’ll be fol­low­ing up on that par­tic­u­lar pay­load sug­ges­tion,” she said.

The new fac­tory is a huge space —

7500sq m, four times the size of Rocket Lab’s old assem­bly plant next to Auck­land Air­port.

It in­cludes a Mis­sion Con­trol Cen­tre, which will over­see launches from Rocket Lab’s Mahia Penin­sula launch­pad.

Founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Peter Beck said 16 flights were planned for next year. By 2020, he wanted a launch a week — hence the ramp-up in pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity.

Beck gave a spe­cial thanks to the Rocket Lab team for their in­no­va­tion and hard work.

“Gen­er­ally it’s coun­tries that go to space, not com­pa­nies,” he said.

Ardern said it was an hon­our to be among such a pres­ti­gious group of guests. “I never thought in my life I would ac­knowl­edge Wil­liam Shat­ner at the begin­ning of a speech.”

Ardern said if she had told peo­ple

15 years ago New Zealand would be play­ing a role in the space in­dus­try, she would have been greeted with sur­prise.

The fu­ture of Kiwi space ex­plo­ration is be­ing worked on in the most un­likely of places — a fac­tory next to a sec­ond­hand car dealer, near New Zealand’s big­gest mall. But in­side Rocket Lab’s gleam­ing new plant, things sud­denly take a very Star Trek turn — and not just be­cause of the pres­ence of open­ing-day guest Wil­liam Shat­ner.

Three of the com­pany’s Elec­tron launch ve­hi­cles (or “rock­ets”, as most peo­ple call them) are un­der con­struc­tion on the fac­tory floor. Subassem­bly cells fea­ture 3D metal prin­ters. A gi­ant CNC (com­puter nu­mer­i­cal con­trol) unit that can mill com­po­nents the size of a bus will be op­er­a­tional within weeks.

A 17m tall Elec­tron can launch a small satel­lite into low Earth or­bit for US$5.7 mil­lion ($8.7m) — a bar­gain base­ment price in aero­space terms. Rocket Lab had a suc­cess­ful test launch in Jan­uary. Af­ter sev­eral de­lays due to weather and mi­nor tech­ni­cal gl­itches, its first com­mer­cial launch is slated for next month.

It’s a huge space — 7500 square me­tres, or four times the size of Rocket Lab’s old assem­bly plant next to Auck­land Air­port.

Pub­lic re­la­tions be­ing an im­por­tant part of the space in­dus­try, the cramped area for a hand­ful of guests at Rocket Lab’s old Man­gere of­fice has been re­placed by a roomy area where

150 guests can watch a launch — of which there will be many, if all goes to plan.

The new build­ing in­cludes a new Mis­sion Con­trol Cen­tre, which will over­see launches from Rocket Lab’s Mahia Penin­sula launch­pad, plus its pend­ing new fa­cil­ity in the US.

Founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Peter Beck says 16 flights are planned for next year.

By 2020, he wants a launch a week — hence the ramp­ing up of pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity.

The com­pany is also on a hir­ing spree. Its staff has nearly dou­bled to

330 over the past year, with around

200 in New Zealand and the bal­ance in the US.

Beck says it will hire an­other 180 over the next 12 months, split evenly be­tween Auck­land and LA. “That’s a con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate, based on our cur­rent num­ber of projects,” he says.

The founder says hir­ing is ac­tu­ally get­ting eas­ier. Whereas be­fore it was hunt­ing for rocket sci­en­tists, these days the com­pany is re­cruit­ing for more main­stream roles such as sup­ply-chain spe­cial­ists and sales man­agers.

Impressive as the new Mt Welling­ton fac­tory is, it’s still smaller than Rocket Lab’s fac­tory in Hunt­ing­ton Beach on the south­ern out­skirts of Los An­ge­les, where its “Ruther­ford” en­gines and avion­ics are pro­duced.

All up, Rocket Lab now has more than 18,000sq m of man­u­fac­tur­ing space as it gears up for Beck’s am­bi­tious rocket-a-week target.

It’s part of the Kiwi-Amer­i­can com­pany’s plan to grab as much aero­space busi­ness as pos­si­ble over the next four years — a pe­riod when var­i­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions want to launch 2600 satel­lites.

“That’s not an es­ti­mate or in­clud­ing dream­ers or com­pa­nies in stealth mode, that’s the ac­tual pipe­line,” Beck says. “Whether there are enough cus­tomers is not one of the things that keeps me up at night.”

Dozens of start-ups are chasing the same pool of cus­tomers. “But we’re the only ones who’ve made it to the launch­pad,” he says.

And although he wants a flight a week — which would make his com­pany eas­ily the high­est-fre­quency rocket-launch­ing op­er­a­tion on the planet, Beck has no plans to move up the food chain and chal­lenge the heavy-lift­ing SpaceX. He says Rocket Lab will stay in its small rocket, small satel­lite niche, de­liv­er­ing sub-150kg pay­loads into low Earth or­bit. That’s where most of the mar­ket de­mands rests, he says. (And, in­ci­den­tally, Beck has no am­bi­tion to go into space him­self. He says he’s too fa­mil­iar with the dan­gers.)

Rocket Lab has very Kiwi roots. This re­porter first cov­ered Beck back in 2009 as the one-time Fisher & Paykel en­gi­neer launched a tiny, sub-or­bital rocket from Sir Michael Fay’s Mer­cury Is­land.

The launch did not go well. “Coro­man­del, we have a prob­lem,” I wrote as Beck lost track of his rocket dur­ing its de­scent and asked lo­cal boat­ies to keep an eye out. It was never found. To my un­sci­en­tific eye, it seemed closer to a stu­dent jape than The Right Stuff (though even to say “stu­dent” is mis­lead­ing; Beck is self-taught and never went to univer­sity).

Oth­ers had more ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Beck’s in­no­va­tions in en­gine and fuel sys­tems. Heavy­weight in­vestors like Lock­heed Martin and Sil­i­con Val­ley le­gend Vinod Khosla came on­board and the com­pany was rein­cor­po­rated in Cal­i­for­nia.

The US De­fence Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency, or Darpa, and Nasa both came call­ing, want­ing a closer look at Rocket Lab’s tech­nol­ogy. Nasa be­came an early cus­tomer.

Whether there are enough cus­tomers is not one of the things that keeps me up at night. Peter Beck (above)

In early 2017, Rocket Lab raised US$75m at a post-money val­u­a­tion of more than US$1 bil­lion (to date, the com­pany has raised US$148m).

Beck po­litely de­clines to re­veal the size of his stake to­day, be­yond say­ing that he now holds a mi­nor­ity of the com­pany. He says there is still a “sig­nif­i­cant New Zealand share­hold­ing”.

Early in­vestor Sir Stephen Tin­dall sup­ported the 2017 round through his K1W1 fund, though in­di­ca­tions are that the rich lis­ter par­tic­i­pated at a modest level (the round was led by a group of US ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists who call them­selves The Data Col­lec­tive).

Beck says “we’re an Amer­i­can com­pany and have been for a long time.” He says New Zealan­ders should cel­e­brate that as a sign of suc­cess.

His am­bi­tions are global. Rocket Lab’s first launches have been from its cus­tom-built fa­cil­ity at Mahia Penin­sula. But its next launch­pad will be in the US. It will an­nounce the lo­ca­tion from a short­list of four sites in about a fort­night, Beck says. The com­pany is al­ready scout­ing in the UK for a third launch­pad lo­ca­tion, with plans for a fourth in Asia to fol­low.

Beck says dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions al­low for satel­lites to be launched to dif­fer­ent or­bital in­cli­na­tions. But it’s also partly a com­mer­cial de­ci­sion. Some Amer­i­can cus­tomers just want to be close to the launch ac­tion, he says.

But although its cor­po­rate head­quar­ters are in the US, the Mt Welling­ton fac­tory is a tan­gi­ble com­mit­ment to keep­ing a big chunk of pro­duc­tion in New Zealand. Beck says Auck­land will also re­main the cen­tre for most of Rocket Lab’s R&D.

And while he sees Rocket Lab launch­pads dot­ted around the world in years to come, he says New Zealand will al­ways be the com­pany’s high­est-vol­ume lo­ca­tion for launches.

There’s pa­tri­o­tism in that stance, but also a lot of prag­ma­tism. New Zealand has rel­a­tively light aero­space reg­u­la­tion com­pared to other parts of the world and “no air or ship­ping traf­fic” as Beck puts it. (Those queu­ing for the Koru Lounge might think our skies are crowded, but by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards they’re empty.)

More­over, Rocket Lab owns its Mahia launch fa­cil­ity (the world’s only pri­vate launch­pad) and its down­range track­ing sta­tion in the Chatham Is­lands. Beck likes that to­tal con­trol. It suits his high-fre­quency launch plans.

By con­trast, the four US sites it is look­ing at (Cape Canaveral, Wal­lops Flight Fa­cil­ity, Pa­cific Space­port Com­plex and Van­den­berg Air Force Base) are all es­tab­lished fa­cil­i­ties, where it can in­stall its own launch­pad amid ex­ist­ing in­fras­truc­ture.

Given the reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment in the US, that was the only fea­si­ble path, Beck says.

In New Zealand, the skies are clearer.

Wil­liam Shat­ner joked about putting the PM’s baby into space at Rocket Lab’s fac­tory launch.

Rocket Lab’s new fac­tory cov­ers 7500sq m.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.