From idea to orbit - the Rocket Lab story

From idea to orbit - the Rocket Lab story

27 August 2018

New Zealand innovation is reshaping the aerospace industry – with Rocket Lab blazing a smarter path to orbit and bringing space closer for thousands of businesses worldwide.

Founded in 2006 but only really grabbing headlines in the past few years, Rocket Lab is another example of an overnight success that took years to happen. 

Like children around the world, Peter Beck grew up fascinated with space and rockets. But unlike most of us, this young engineer from New Zealand’s southern city of Invercargill has gone on to create a world-first aerospace business that promises to blast satellites into orbit for a tenth of the usual cost, up to once every 72 hours.

Beck and his team have combined ingenuity and sheer grit to create the Electron – a unique 18 metre-tall carbon fibre rocket, powered by a revolutionary engine named for pioneering New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford. The patented Rutherford engine is the first of its kind, including 3D printed primary parts and battery-powered turbo pumps.

Electron was successfully tested on May 25 last year when it blasted off from the Mahia peninsula near Gisborne, New Zealand - the world’s first and only private orbital launch range. In January 2018 the company achieved a second successful test launch, reaching orbit and successfully deploying the company’s first commercial payloads - three -  CubeSats that have gone into orbit on behalf of paying customers. This latter launched marked a significant milestone in eliminating commercial barriers and ushering in a new era of unprecedented access to space. 

Dedicated launches to low earth orbit on Electron start for as little $US5.7 million, which goes some way into helping Rocket Lab achieve its vision of making space commercially viable and more accessible than ever, something Peter Beck himself described as, “doing what the Ford Model T did for consumer automobiles”.

If that sounds difficult, you’d be right. There are a million things to do when launching a rocket, from the pioneering technology itself to the months of planning and flight simulations, to the 25,000 channels of data requiring analysis after each test flight. But the result was worth it. 

“It was beautiful to watch,” says Beck, whose beaming smiles and air punching went viral in a video of the first successful launch. “Our team achieved something that most deemed impossible. We designed and built every element of Electron in under four years.”

Beck’s vision has attracted 270 staff (and counting) from around the world, and a group of investors including Bessemer Ventures, DCVC (Data Collective), Lockheed Martin and Khosla Ventures - creating a billion-dollar business. He also played an instrumental role in establishing international treaties and legislation with relevant New Zealand and American agencies, allowing a local space industry to grow.

“Beyond the Rocket Lab team, we’ve had great support from the New Zealand government and other organisations to make this possible,” says Beck. Rocket Lab plans to launch satellites to orbit more than 50 times a year once it commercialises the Electron – potentially opening up space for businesses, governments and research organisations.

Beck says cheaper, faster and more frequent space access has the potential to lead to more accurate weather prediction, global high speed Internet access, as well as real-time monitoring of the impacts of human development, such as coastal erosion, deforestation and illegal fishing or poaching.

With major test launches under its belt, it’s clear Rocket Lab has disrupted the aerospace industry. As Beck says, “space is now open for business”.