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
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.
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.” »
“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.