Rocket Lab: the Electron, the Rutherford, and why Peter Beck started it in the first place
High-frequency, low-cost launches is the goal of Rocket Lab, a small aerospace company that suddenly gained attention after announcing the details of its Rutherford engine, named for the New Zealand-born British physicist Ernest Rutherford, at this year’s Space Symposium. SpaceFlight Insider had the opportunity to speak with Peter Beck, the company’s CEO and founder, about Electron launches and about the company itself.
The Electron rocket program began in 2013, and has produced a design dedicated for bringing small satellites to low-Earth orbit (LEO) as inexpensively as possible – about $4.9 million per mission, a fraction of the current average launch price. Each Electron is made using carbon composite instead of metal due to its strength and low mass, which gives the rocket, according to the website, “a dry mass equal to less than a Mini Cooper.”
It’s a two-stage rocket, with the first stage powered by nine of Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engines and the second by the Rutherford Vacuum Engine, which has a different nozzle shape that is “tailored to suit the vacuum conditions outside Earth’s atmosphere,” according to the website. The entire rocket is 20 meters high and one meter in diameter.
Rocket Lab developed the Rutherford engine specifically for the Electron launch vehicle, and it is capable of 4,600 pounds-force of thrust with a specific impulse of 327 seconds. It’s fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1, which is essentially very refined kerosene, and all of its major components are made using additive manufacturing – that is, 3-D printing – “including the regeneratively cooled thrust chamber, injector, pumps, and main propellant valves,” according to Rocket Lab. The whole engine can be built in just three days. Additionally, the carbon composite tanks were specially designed in order to be compatible with the liquid oxygen.
There is also a reason that the engine’s plumbing looks significantly less complex than usual. In rocket engines, turbopumps are used to push fuel and oxidizer into the combustion chamber, and are typically driven by gas turbines. Instead, the Rutherford’s turbopump uses brushless DC motors and high performance lithium polymer batteries, making the whole design much simpler thermodynamically and possible to modify with software changes as necessary.
Unlike most rocket developers, everything from the rocket body to the engine to the guidance systems are designed in-house.
“We have some machining contractors outside, a component manufacturer, but all the design and most of the manufacturing is done in-house,” said Beck. “It’s really critical to be able to design a launch vehicle in the time frame that we’re designing it, and it’s a fully integrated concept. So, raw material comes in and a rocket comes out. We even operate our own launch range, so we even are able to do that part of it as well. It’s really instrumental in having full control over that whole cycle, to be able to achieve what we want to achieve.”
Beck created the company in 2007 after discovering that simply working in the aerospace industry would not actually fulfill his childhood dream. Up to that point, he had made all his career choices in exactly one way.
“It’s always been about the rocket for me,” he said.
He took a tool and die-making apprenticeship at Fisher and Paykel to gain “the hand skills in precision engineering to be able to build rockets and rocket engines”, and had unusual freedom there to try his own rocket projects. He then worked at a government research laboratory which provided experience in advanced materials and structures.
“I’d always dreamed as a child working for one of the very big aerospace primes, and it was a time in my career where I went to America for about a month,” Beck said. “My wife had some work over there, so I went over there and spent a bit of time with these aerospace primes, talking to folks at NASA and all over the industry, and it became pretty obvious that I would be a tiny, tiny gear in a giant machine, and although even if I really excelled in one of those big corporations, they’re still not going to do what I want to do, which is what I’m doing now. So it was kind of a depressing time.
“I remember the flight home, the 12-hour flight back from L.A. to New Zealand, and I remember on that flight thinking, ‘Well, here’s my childhood dreams, they’re smashed! This isn’t the way it is at all.’ So, really it was on the way home that I decided that I’d start Rocket Lab, and I drew the logo, and thought of a name, and incorporated when I landed and about six months later I quit my job at a government research lab and started the company.”
Within just a couple of years, in November 2009, Rocket Lab became the first private company to reach space in the southern hemisphere when their Ātea-1 suborbital sounding rocket launched successfully from their own facility. And before starting Electron, the company “developed advanced systems for various customers,” Beck said, including DARPA, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Lockheed Martin.
“But we do none of that now; we’re really focused on this Electron launch vehicle,” he said.
The company intends to remain focused on making space accessible. So rather than aiming for a family of vehicles, crewed missions or lunar landings, Rocket Lab is sticking to the small satellite market.
“Customers have told us they need 100 kilograms to a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. If the customers in a year’s time tell us they need 120 kilograms then we’ll go there. But right now, the key element that’s always been missing in spaceflight is frequency,” Beck said, “and with frequency comes cost reduction.”
Reducing cost and increasing frequency to space was the goal of the company from the start.
“There’s been technologies that come along that make that a lot more manageable,” he said, including additive manufacturing and decreasing payload mass. “But satellites have been shrinking for a long time. For me it was kind of obvious, the trend has been that way for a long time, but there’s always an element of being at the right place at the right time, for sure.”
Rocket Lab, like Beck himself, did originate in New Zealand. Only after the Electron program began did it become a U.S. company with a New Zealand subsidiary.
“We had secured significant Silicon Valley capital, and it doesn’t make sense to build value like that in a New Zealand company,” Beck explained. “And the launch vehicle is a U.S. launch vehicle, so there’s a lot of legal reasons why we need to be a U.S. company as well.”
There is still a major reason to keep a piece of Rocket Lab in New Zealand.
“We operate a private launch range down here,” he said. “If we go out to a U.S. federal range, we just can’t achieve the flight frequency or the cost that we need. That’s the only reason we’re based down here in New Zealand … There’s just no shipping, there’s no air traffic, there’s nothing, except a great big piece of blue Pacific Ocean.”
Most of the Electron launches will be from the company’s under-construction private spaceport in New Zealand. However, Beck understands that some U.S. companies will only want to launch from the United States, for one reason or another. Thus the company is also evaluating domestic options, including Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, as reported by Florida Today.
The first Electron rocket is supposed to launch this year, and though Beck didn’t have a specific date on hand, he gave “mid-December” as the current target.
“It would be nice if we were just building a rocket. If we were just building a rocket, life would be far easier. But, we’re not,” Beck said.
Besides the rocket, they have to complete the launch range, the tracking infrastructure with sites across the globe, and the FAA licensing process, among other things.
“We’re working as hard as we can to get to the launch at the end of the year, but there is just an enormous amount of work to do. Some days I just wish we just had to build a rocket and that was it.”
The company has already secured commitments for at least the first 30 launches of the yet-untested rocket. When asked how they can be sure the rocket actually works, Beck cited the more than 300 test fires of the Rutherford engine that have been done, “a tremendous amount of ground testing, a tremendous amount of certification and acceptance testing”, as well as the company’s history.
“Rocket Lab has a long history of flying vehicles, not orbital but suborbital experience. We have over 87 rocket launches under our belt. So, there’s a lot of heritage from those that moved over into the system,” Beck said. He then added, “With a launch vehicle, you can test all you want on the ground, but ultimately it comes down to the first flight.”
Beck concluded with, “It’s a hefty goal and really, it’s not about moving on to bigger and better things. It’s about reducing the cost and increasing that launch frequency and just continuing to do those two things to enable critical mass of space infrastructure. If we can achieve that, then everybody’s world is going to be quite different.”
Rae Botsford End is a freelance writer and editor whose primary work currently is writing technical white papers, contributing to SFI, and working on a speculative fiction novel that she hopes to have published soon. Rae wanted an opportunity to report on the various space-related events in and around Florida's Space Coast and approached SFI's founder about the possibility. Rae now covers an array of subjects for our growing website.