A not-so-quiet revolution in space launch is taking place off the eastern coast of New Zealand. Led by founder Peter Beck, Rocket Lab has upended launch for small satellites, just as SpaceX has for the big ones.
The company has put up 48 satellites so far for customers ranging from government agencies to private companies. And, like SpaceX, the company has reusability on its roadmap as the only sustainable way to access space.
I’ve been talking with Beck about his company and plans. Here’s what he says about Rocket Lab and its reason for being:
“Until Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle began launching in 2017, small satellites were forced to choose between the lengthy delays and less-than-ideal orbits available as a rideshare, or the infeasible cost of flying as a dedicated payload on a large launch vehicle. Rocket Lab has put small satellite operators in control for the first time.”
The Electron stands 55 feet tall. Its first stage runs on nine liquid-fuelled Rocket Lab-built Rutherford engines. It can take 500 pounds to low earth orbit.
During the last few two launches, in December and January, Rocket Lab engineers successfully controlled the reentries of the first stage back into the atmosphere. The next step is to capture them on the way down so they can be refueled and relaunched. They got a big step closer with a successful helicopter capture test in March.
Here’s a video:
Last year, the company built a new launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. They’re ready to launch from there as soon as the lockdown imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19 lifts.
Beck started Rocket Lab in 2007. It took ten years to get to first launch, and while he makes it look easy, there’s nothing easy about starting a rocket company, let alone succeeding with one, especially without deep pockets. “I always joke that I’m the only non-billionaire who’s started a rocket company,” he says.
I asked Beck what it was like to start and run a rocket company, and the secret to his success.
On starting a rocket company
“What I learned very early is that when you start a company—and it doesn’t have to be a space company; the rule follows for any company—you may as well go for the absolute biggest idea you can because the amount of work and pain is the same. The numbers on the balance sheet change, but that’s it. Everything else is the same, so you may as well shoot for something really, really big.”
On running a rocket company
“Building a rocket company, the best way I can describe it is like running in a maze at night where you can hardly see where you’re going, and at every dead-end, there’s a guy standing there with a gun.
“One wrong turn and you’re done. One bad day at the engine test cell, and you can blow up an entire facility. That can put you behind—especially when you’re a startup—to the point where you can’t survive.
“Every move that you make is potentially a deadly one, and to get through that maze, you need a mixture of luck, for sure, but good management and making sure that you approach things in a capable way. You just don’t run into the dead-end blindly, you poke your head around the corner and have a look and make decisions quickly.
“I think that’s particularly important when you’re developing technology. It’s very easy to go down the wrong technology path and become emotionally attached to that technology. It’s really important as you peer around that corner, and you see that guy standing with the gun that you recognize that and you do an about-turn very, very quickly, and don’t get too wound up in that decision.”
“Never stop running. Just go hell for leather.”
Why neatness counts
“Finally, build beautiful things. There’s no substitute for good engineering. We have a concept here of fail fast. That’s great. But you can look at any part of the Electron launch vehicle or anything that Rocket Lab has built, and it’s always beautiful. It’s always beautiful pieces of equipment.
“There’s nothing on the Electron launch vehicle that looks like it should belong on a tractor. I personally go down and inspect every launch vehicle, and I look for all the cable tie spacings to be two inches apart. Does that have any effect on the performance of the vehicle? Absolutely not. But it’s a level of diligence and quality that everybody on the team cheers and really celebrates.
“In this industry, we can’t afford to have things go wrong. Making beautiful things and being absolutely fastidious about quality is the biggest secret.”