Rocket Lab, an aerospace manufacturer and small satellite launcher that’s raised nearly $290 million to date, thinks a new focus on rocket reusability can help it significantly ramp up the pace of its closely watched operations.
The 13-year-old company is aiming to launch one of its Electron rockets every week as early as 2021, founder and Chief Executive Peter Beck said.
That’s a big jump from its current pace; Rocket Lab’s seventh launch since the start of 2018 took place this month.
Beck told the Business Journal the Huntington Beach company is aiming for a launch every two weeks by the end of next year, before trying to step up to a weekly pace.
The launch increase depends on a new, and unproven, plan to reuse a portion of the vehicle it uses to put small satellites into orbit.
The price per Rocket Lab launch starts around $7.5 million; at the one-launch per week goal that would equate to nearly $400 million in revenue for the company on an annual basis—more than the company has raised in funding the past few years.
The company last week presented plans to recover and re-fly the first stage of the Electron launch rocket, a 56-foot rocket that is designed to loft a payload—be it from government, military or private sector customers—upwards of 500 pounds into low Earth orbit (see explainer, this page).
Under the second phase of the plan, the first stage of the rocket will be caught in its descent via a helicopter after deploying a parachute.
Beck said the company’s plans for a higher launch tempo depends on making a portion of the rocket reusable, making its efforts more affordable and minimizing manufacturing efforts.
Making sure the rocket survives re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere is likely the biggest obstacle for the project, he said.
“It’s a very challenging problem for a small launch vehicle,” the 42-year-old New Zealander said. “Getting it through the atmosphere at such high speeds and keeping the stage together is really the challenging bit,” he said.
“The helicopter capture is the easiest bit of the whole program.”
The plan, if successful, will eliminate the need to build a new first stage of the company’s rocket for every mission, he said.
Beck said he’s optimistic the plan will work.
“We wouldn’t be investing this much time and capital into it if we didn’t believe we had a good shot at pulling it off,” Beck said. “It might take us a bit of time to get there.”
Make It Rain
A major step toward Rocket Lab’s reusability plan was completed on the company’s most recent launch, the “Make It Rain” mission, which launched on June 29 from New Zealand. The first stage on this mission carried critical instrumentation and experiments that provided data to inform future recovery efforts.
The next Electron mission that’s scheduled for launch this month will also carry recovery instrumentation, the company said.
Beck said the company has deployed 35 satellites into orbit by means of its seven launches, and was pleased with the positive feedback about the plans for reusing the first phase of Electron.
Its first orbital launch was in January of last year.
New Zealand Roots
The company has about 500 employees in its Huntington Beach headquarters and its locations in Virginia and New Zealand, and is growing.
Beck is considered a founding father of New Zealand’s developing space program. He expanded operations and relocated headquarters to Surf City in 2016.
The company is considered a “unicorn,” which is Silicon Valley lingo for a private startup company with a value $1 billion or more, thanks to a $140 million round of funding last year, one of the largest funding deals in OC the past few years.
After last year’s capital round—led by Australia-based Sovereign Wealth Fund, also known as Future Fund, and also featuring Khosla Ventures and Bessemer Venture Partners—Beck said the company isn’t looking to raise more money or to go public.
“We’re in good shape,” he said.
Instead of a “space race,” he’s predicting a “space boom.”
“Everybody is growing, everybody is hiring, capital is flowing,” he said of the various companies involved in reaching outer space.