Rocket Lab CEO reflects on company's humble beginnings as a drainpipe

PowerPoint presentations are all well and good, but for Peter Beck, you can't beat something physical

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck spoke at the SmallSat 2022 conference and offered up words of wisdom for anyone pondering an entry into the lighter end of the launch market.

After apologizing for his virtual presence – Beck had sensed an imminent propulsive emission of his own before boarding and wisely swapped a 20-hour flight for a camera and microphone – the CEO last week gave viewers an insight into how he and his company had gone from a childhood dream to something capable of launching spacecraft to the Moon and eventually Mars and Venus.

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Beck described the early days, scrabbling around Silicon Valley in search of funding. $5 million was forthcoming and the very first thing Beck splashed the cash on was constructing a mock-up of the proposed rocket. "It's great to physically inspire people with things that look like they're going to build," he said.

Which is how a youthful Beck ended up pictured next to an Electron rocket that was not all it might have seemed. "Of course, the only piece of pipe that we could find that was a similar diameter [to the rocket] was a piece of drainpipe."

The rest is history. While the drainpipe was ditched in favor of something considerably higher tech, the challenges of construction and launch remained. As did keeping up the quality for each and every launch. "It's just immensely more difficult to do something 20 times over and over again reliably than to do it once or twice," Beck observed.

"Ignorance", he added, "is bliss."

Beck went on to extol the virtues of the innovative 3D rocket printing used by the company and its electric pumps before detailing the events of the first Electron flight, which took place in 2017. "It was a perfect flight," he said, a little ruefully. Perfect right up until it wasn't.

The vehicle infamously blew itself to pieces as the mission was abruptly terminated. The telemetry feed to the range safety feed was lost; dishes on the ground hunted for a signal from the vehicle and when one could not be found, the safeties kicked in.

"The reality is there was one tick box in a piece of software that wasn't ticked for error checking and as the errors accumulated it continued to search around for the rocket and couldn't find it."

Beck has since had a screenshot of the screen with the tickbox framed and stuck on the wall as a reminder of just how a small a mission-ending error can be. Something with which many technologists will sympathize.

Beck went on to detail other challenges faced by the company, including its first post-testing loss of vehicle on the Electron's 13th flight.

"Just when you think you've got it all sorted and everything's going well, you get a baseball bat to the face... and we got to flight 13."

It was, according to Beck, "the tiniest thing."

A high-voltage connection was not quite perfect. Good enough to pass testing but, when the rocket was flying, the potting compound around the joint melted and liquefied. A short resulted in an electrical spike and "that was the end of that."

Flight 20 also suffered a loss of mission when the second stage shut down early.

Beck literally ate his hat after deciding to make the first stage of the Electron reusable via a combination of avionics to ensure the stage made a controlled return to Earth, parachutes, and a helicopter to catch it.

Going forwards, Beck noted that the Electron managed to loft 320kg to Low Earth Orbit for NASA's CAPSTONE mission – "the engines were at 110 per cent the whole time" – and said the company was pondering what to do with CAPSTONE's Photon spacecraft when it swings past Earth later this month. "We've still got about 10 to 15 percent residual propellant in there. We'll have a crack at doing something cool with it and see how far we can get into the solar system."

And there is the mission to Venus, missions to Mars, and the considerably heftier Neutron rocket, on which Beck promised an update in September.

"We do what we say we will," read the final slide from Beck's keynote.

In an industry dominated by PowerPoint rockets and continually slipping timelines, the approach is refreshing. Even if that first mock-up had to be made with a drainpipe. ®

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