March 1, 2024

Rocket Lab is a David among Goliaths in the space race • The Register

Interview Rocket Lab is a relatively small company in a launcher market dominated by governments and billionaires. However, despite some notable anomalies, the company enters 2024 with a busy schedule and big plans for the future.

Boss Peter Beck is unfazed by his rivals. He counts The register: “Rocket Lab is probably one of the few – if not the only – truly commercial providers, certainly publicly traded. Generally, our competitors are the two richest men on the planet or the government.”

As far as reaching orbit and staying active, Beck is correct. Where other commercial companies – such as Virgin Orbit – have failed, Rocket Lab continues to launch its Electron rockets despite some setbacks.

Of the 42 flights, Rocket Lab suffered four failures. A telemetry issue was to blame during the Electron’s first test flight (called “It’s a Test”) in 2017. The others were related to problems with the second stage in 2020, 2021, and 2023. After the failure in September 2023 , the company was back in action within two months.

“It’s devastating to have a failure,” says Beck. However, Rocket Lab is a commercial entity that can only step aside for a short period of time. “If we’re not flying, we’re not generating revenue. We’re burning money.”

Being almost fully vertically integrated means the team diagnosed and resolved issues quickly. “We don’t need to depend on third parties,” explains Beck. “If we want to open up an avionics box, take a look inside, and understand exactly what’s going on, we can just walk down the hall and talk to the guy who designed it.”

The same applies to software.

Well, we didn’t blow up the biggest rocket ever created on a national reservation

The approach can be contrasted with that adopted by government-supported organizations. Arianespace, for example, has notoriously struggled to get Vega-C flying again after a failure during launch in 2022. The next launch will be delayed until late 2024 at the earliest, pending redesigns.

However, Rocket Lab has had its share of run-ins with regulators and government agencies, just like other commercial operators. The license for its Wallops launch pad was suspended while authorities scrutinized the company’s abortion system. That said, Beck holds no grudges, praising the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in particular. “Yes, although there have been some frustrations along the way, I would say our experiences with regulators have been positive.”

Unlike other commercial operators, who regularly argue with authorities over launch plans.

“Well, we didn’t blow up the biggest rocket ever created on a national reservation.”

However, like other commercial operators, Rocket Lab intends to recover and potentially reuse its electron boosters. He had planned to capture descending rockets via helicopter, but after retrieving some from the ocean, he realized that diving in salt water might not be so bad after all.

Beck explains: “The assumption we made that once the rocket was launched into the ocean it would be over was correct. But in fact, the problems that needed to be solved were relatively few.

“It’s kind of ironic that we were fishing [the Electron boosters] anyway, from the middle of the ocean, and we realized, ‘Actually, this isn’t so bad…’ So we just switched to that method.”

SpaceX reuses its Falcon 9 rockets over and over again. Beck hopes Rocket Lab will get to the point where a refurbished Electron can be reused, but he also hopes the lessons learned will be applied to the company’s next rocket, the considerably heavier Neutron.

Beck declined to provide specific dates for Neutron, other than to say that testing was going well and that milestones were being reached. “This year,” he says, “is a year of engine testing and large airframe development and testing. Right now everything is going well, but when you get to these large-scale tests, that’s when you learn things.”

And Neutron will be reusable. Beck points to the economic advantage of reuse. “If you are developing expendable vehicles at this point, then you are developing a dead product.”

Better not to mention this to NASA with their SLS or Arianespace and Ariane 6.

“For government programs, especially programs without reuse experience, it’s quite a difficult task… the pivoting ability is not very strong; a lot of these programs have been in development for decades.”

Rocket Lab also does not have the benefit – or not, as the case may be – of being the plaything of one of the richest people on the planet, although it has required investment in recent years. He must also get a return on this investment.

Our two biggest competitors are the two richest people on the planet. Do they need to be profitable? Probably not.

Beck says, “It’s about aligning what you want to do with the interests of investors. And the interests of investors are incredibly simple. It’s about making money! If you’re trying to build a multigenerational space company, then, by definition, you have to needs to be profitable, so the projects and vision are aligned with that.

“Our two biggest competitors are the two richest people on the planet. Do they need to be profitable? Probably not. But we have to be, so we can be efficient and do things that ensure that.”

That said, Beck’s dream of a mission to Venus continues to move forward. While some focus on Mars, Beck has long proposed a flotilla of simple, relatively inexpensive probes to investigate Venus. However, as Beck says, “We always saw it as an evening and weekend project.”

Unfortunately, pet projects have to be put aside in favor of taking care of real clients. Rocket Lab has more than 20 Electron launches scheduled in 2024 and the infrastructure is ready to reach 50 or more. Hopefully a mission to Venus can be quietly introduced somewhere.

As for the future, Beck jokes that “a year at Rocket Lab is like a dog year. So five years is an extraordinarily long period of time to think about.” He tells us he sees consolidation and full-service companies as the future.

“The big, successful companies of the future will not be space companies that just build a satellite or just launch a rocket. These will be companies where you can design a spacecraft, build a spacecraft, launch a spacecraft and operate a spacecraft.

“I firmly believe that in the future, people will only want services from space. They don’t want all the hassle of building, owning, operating and launching a spacecraft.”

Instead of customers submitting detailed spacecraft and payload specifications, Beck’s definition of success is a customer ordering some telecommunications in one region or another, and the future space company simply taking care of everything.

“I think that’s ultimately where it’s all going to go.” ®

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