New Zealand: Land of rockets, not hobbits

Image credit; Rocket Lab

The Māhia Peninsula has been a haven for New Zealand holiday-goers for decades. Located on the east coast of the country’s North Island, the headland offers sandy beaches, natural hot springs, and scenic walking trails. Oh, and the world’s first privately-owned orbital launch site.

Māhia is the home of Rocket Lab – a US aerospace manufacturer, founded and led by kiwi Peter Beck. Beck has been obsessed with rockets all his life, and admits that his ambition to work in the sector, despite growing up in the deep south of New Zealand, left school careers advisers scratching their heads. “But, I knew what I wanted to do, so I set about doing it. Working hard was the norm in my family,” he says. At 18, Beck started a toolmaking apprenticeship, and later joined a Crown Research Institute where he was worked in materials engineering. In 2006, Beck travelled to the US, eager to explore the space industry there. He returned to NZ convinced that they’d reached a tipping point – that the future of rocketry was commercial – and he wanted in. So, he founded Rocket Lab, with the aim of lowering the cost of access to space.

In its early days, Beck says Rocket Lab mainly “bootstrapped some projects, and did some work for the US government. We wanted to build credibility, and develop our own knowledge and capability.” Throughout this period, the company grew steadily, but in late 2013, Beck opened the door to investors, so that they could focus on developing their own launch vehicle – the Electron rocket.

After several investment rounds, Beck asserts that Rocket Lab had attracted a “couple of hundred million NZ dollars from a $1.4 billion valuation, before we’d launched a single satellite”. The company’s growth since then has been rapid, with five people per week joining their NZ- and US-based workforces. The Electron programme, too, has hit some major milestones. On 21st January 2018, Rocket Lab’s second test flight – incongruously called ‘Still Testing’ – left the launch pad at Māhia. Eight minutes later, it deployed three commercial satellites, plus a reflective, geodesic sphere dubbed the Humanity Star, into low Earth orbit, making New Zealand the 11th country to successfully launch into space.

Coming just two weeks before the SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral, it’s tempting to view these companies as competitors. But while they both aim to ‘democratise’ space, their goals are very different. SpaceX are looking to develop large, reusable rockets that can deliver heavy payloads into deep space. Rocket Lab is building smaller rockets – the Electron is 17 m tall, and 1.2 m in diameter – that can deploy multiple small satellites, called cubesats, into orbit around Earth. And in the process, they’re redefining rocket science.

Take their launch site. Most commercial space companies operate from government-owned facilities, but Beck and his team built theirs from scratch. “It took a bilateral treaty between the US and NZ to get us started,” he says. “And we had to lay roads and internet fibres before we could pour a drop of concrete. It was a massive infrastructure project.” Contrary to popular belief, the site’s location wasn’t driven by Beck’s connection to NZ, “We scoured the globe for a site that could give us multiple launch angles, minimal air and marine traffic, and a high launch frequency. That’s what brought us to NZ.” Now with a license to launch a rocket every 72 hours for the next 30 years, Rocket Lab claim to have a launch capability higher than most countries.

My recent visit to Rocket Lab’s manufacturing facility near Auckland airport uncovered a few unexpected sights, including a dedicated ‘lay-up’ room. There, they produce carbon fibre composite materials – similar to those used in Formula1 cars, and in some commercial aircraft – to form the body of the Electron rocket. Using composites over more traditional metals reduces the mass of the vehicle, which in turn makes it cheaper to launch. The four partially-completed Electrons on the factory floor gave me an opportunity to look at the rocket’s powerhouse – the Rutherford engine – and it’s an impressive piece of kit.

Rather than using gas turbines to push the propellant into the rocket’s main combustion chamber, Rutherford is electrically-fed. Its turbopumps are series of DC motors powered by lithium polymer batteries. In addition, all of the engine’s primary components are 3D-printed by electron-beam melting – a genuine world first. “We didn’t do it this way because we wanted a mark in history,” Beck explains. “It was totally born out of a necessity to simplify. To reach our desired launch frequency, we’d need to produce nine engines a week, so we had to find a way to do it.”

And I think that this really summarises Rocket Labs’ point of difference – when it comes to R&D, they do everything in-house. Beck says, “We don’t have contractors. All of the technology – the avionics, electronics, software, hardware, materials… you name it, we do it either here or at our California site. There are very, very few parts on that launch vehicle that we actually buy.”

Beck is betting on the space industry moving away from large, geostationary satellites that remain in orbit long after their ‘use-by’ date, and towards constellations of small satellites that stay in orbit for a few months, before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. This has led Rocket Lab to offer a ride-sharing scheme to customers – their January launch deployed an Earth-imaging satellite for Planet Labs, and two weather and ship-tracking satellites for Spire. At the moment, customers who want to launch a ‘3U cubesat’ (i.e. a 10 x 10 x 30 cm satellite, weighing no more than 4 kg) can do so for around $240k (£171k). The cost of a dedicated launch, with a nominal payload of 150 kg, starts at $5.7 million (~ £4 million), a tenth of the cost of its competitors.

The focus on small satellites also drove the development of the Curie ‘kick stage’ engine; a previously unannounced system that launched on ‘Still Testing’. Curie is a restartable, 3D-printed rocket engine, with its own avionics, power and communications systems. It’s used to manoeuvre payloads into specific orbits, and once completed, Curie does a de-orbit burn to re-enter the atmosphere. “Previously, small satellite manufacturers had to compromise on orbits, just to get access to space,” Beck explains. “Curie lets us quickly and accurately place satellites into their ideal orbit, without leaving any excess hardware behind.”

Rocket Lab’s third launch – its first fully commercial flight – was announced on March 14th. Dubbed, ‘It’s Business Time’, after a public vote on their social media channels, it’s expected to carry cubesats from multiple telecom companies. The launch vehicle has been transported to Māhia, and its two-week launch window opens on Friday 20th April. No further launches have been announced as yet, but I’ve been assured that they have a full manifest for the next two years, and that there are a few more engineering surprises to come. And with customers including NASA on their books, it seems that the sky is no longer the limit for the land of the long white cloud.

*** I was commissioned to write an article on Rocket Lab for The Economist. You can read the published version of that here The article above is published with the permission of my editor at The Economist, and it includes otherwise unused content, including quotes from Peter Beck, and observations from my visit to the manufacturing facility in Auckland.