Rocket Lab is a David among Goliaths in the space race
CEO Peter Beck on the future of commercial launches and not raining debris over national reserves
Interview Rocket Lab is a relatively small player in a launcher marketplace dominated by governments and billionaires. However, despite some notable anomalies, the company is starting 2024 with a packed schedule and grand plans for the future.
Boss Peter Beck is unfazed by his rivals. He tells The Register: "Rocket Lab is probably one of the few – if not the only – truly commercial providers, certainly publicly traded. Generally, our competitors are either the two richest men on the planet or government."
With regard to reaching orbit and remaining a going concern, Beck is correct. Where other commercial outfits – such as Virgin Orbit – have failed, Rocket Lab continues to launch its Electron rockets despite some setbacks.
Out of 42 flights, Rocket Lab has suffered four failures. A telemetry issue was at fault during Electron's very first test flight (named "It's a Test") in 2017. The others were related to problems with the second stage in 2020, 2021, and 2023. Following the failure in September 2023, the company was back in action within two months.
"It is devastating to have a failure," says Beck. However, Rocket Lab is a commercial entity that can only stand down for a short time. "If we're not flying, we're not generating revenue. We're burning cash."
Being almost completely vertically integrated means the team has diagnosed and resolved issues rapidly. "We don't have to rely on third parties," explains Beck. "If we want to open up an avionics box, have a look in there, and understand exactly what's going on, we just walk down the hallway and talk to the guy who designed it."
The same applies to software.
Well, we didn't explode the largest rocket ever created in a national reserve
The approach can be contrasted with that adopted by government-backed organizations. Arianespace, for example, has famously struggled to return the Vega-C to flight after a failure during launch in 2022. The next launch is delayed to the end of 2024 at the earliest, pending redesigns.
However, Rocket Lab has had its share of run-ins with regulators and government agencies, as have other commercial operators. The license for its Wallops launch pad was held up as the authorities scrutinized the company's abort system. That said, Beck holds no grudges, praising the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in particular. "Yes, while there are some kinds of frustrations along the way, I would say that our experiences with the regulators have been positive."
Unlike other commercial operators, which regularly lock horns with the authorities over launch plans.
"Well, we didn't explode the largest rocket ever created in a national reserve."
However, like other commercial operators, Rocket Lab intends to recover and potentially reuse its Electron boosters. It had planned to snatch descending rockets via helicopter but, after recovering some from the ocean, realized that a dunking in salt water perhaps wasn't so bad after all.
Beck explains: "The assumption that we made that once the rocket gets dumped in the ocean, it's kind of all over, was correct. But actually, the issues that needed to be solved were relatively few.
"It's kind of ironic that we were fishing [the Electron boosters] out of the middle of the ocean anyway, and we realized, 'Actually, this isn't so bad…' So we just pivoted to that method."
SpaceX famously reuses its Falcon 9 rockets over and over again. Beck hopes that Rocket Lab will get to the point where a refurbished Electron might be reused, but also expects the lesson learned will be applied to the company's next rocket, the considerably heftier Neutron.
Beck would not be drawn on specific dates for Neutron, only saying that testing was going well and milestones were being achieved. "This year," he says, "is a year of engine testing and major structure development and testing. Right now, everything's going fine, but when you get up to these big-scale tests, that's when you learn things."
And Neutron will be reusable. Beck points to the economic advantage of reusability. "If you're developing disposable vehicles at this juncture, then you're developing a dead product."
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Best not mention that to NASA with its SLS or Arianespace and the Ariane 6.
"For government programs, especially programs with no experience in reusability, it's a fairly daunting task … the ability to pivot is not very strong; a number of these programs have been in development for decades."
Rocket Lab also lacks the benefit – or not, as the case may be – of being the plaything of one of the richest people on the planet, although it did take investment in recent years. It also must make a return on that investment.
Our two biggest competitors are the two wealthiest people on the planet. Do they need to be profitable? Arguably not.
Beck says: "It's about aligning what you want to do with investors' interests. And investors' interests are incredibly simple. It's to make money! If you're trying to build a multi-generational space company, then, by definition, it has to be profitable. So the projects and the vision align with that.
"Our two biggest competitors are the two wealthiest people on the planet. Do they need to be profitable? Arguably not. But we have to be, so that causes us to be efficient and to do things that ensure that."
That said, Beck's dream of a mission to Venus continues to inch forward. While some focus on Mars, Beck has long proposed a flotilla of relatively inexpensive and simple probes to investigate Venus. However, as Beck puts it: "We've always seen it as a nights and weekends project."
Sadly, pet projects have to go on the back burner in favor of looking after real customers. Rocket Lab has more than 20 Electron launches booked in 2024, and the infrastructure is in place to reach 50 or more. Hopefully, a mission to Venus might be quietly slipped in somewhere.
As for the future, Beck jokes that "one year at Rocket Lab is like a dog year. So five years is an extraordinarily long time period to think about." He tells us he sees consolidation and full-service companies as the future.
"The large, successful companies in the future are not going to be space companies that just build a satellite or just launch a rocket. They are going to 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 just want services from space. They don't want all the kerfuffle of building and owning and operating and launching a spacecraft."
Rather than customers pitching up with a detailed spacecraft and payload specification, Beck's definition of success is a customer asking for some telecommunications over some region or other, and the future space company simply taking care of everything.
"I think, ultimately, that's where it will all go." ®