Spaceflight Insider

Rocket Lab: the Electron, the Rutherford, and why Peter Beck started it in the first place

Rocket Lab's CEO and founder, Peter Beck. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab's CEO and founder, Peter Beck. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

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.

The Rutherford engine. Image Credit: Rocket Lab

The Rutherford engine. Image Credit: Rocket Lab

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.”

The Electron rocket. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

The Electron rocket. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

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.

A test fire of the Rutherford engine. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

A test fire of the Rutherford engine. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

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.

Electron rocket. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

The carbon composite Electron rocket. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

“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.

Reader Comments

George Worthington

9 engines 🙂
Looks like a tiny falcon 9
Wonder if the weight of legs would be worth it?

They seem to have the same beliefs behind their operations

Thanks for writing this article. I’m always interested in a new rocket company to follow. Good luck Peter Beck and Rocket Lab. I hope to hear of and see your successful first launch to orbit.

John Blundell

This project is very high risk – perhaps more so than many realise.

There has to be a concern on the thrust / weight ratio of multiple small engines. Larger engines always deliver superior thrust / weight ratios – that is why we haven’t seen this configuration previously.

Specific Impulse is good – that is a necessary but far from sufficient condition,

Remember we have to add the mass of the batteries to this ratio – and these do not reduce during the burn thus impacting on relative performance vs traditional turbo pumps.

There is also a very big question as to the power and energy capacity of Li batteries of minimal mass.

A launch program of 100 per annum as proposed requires 9 engines every 3 days.

This is no more than pure fantasy and disappointing that it is reported as achievable. Unless there was a massive funding investment this is simply not achievable.

There must also be questions as to the claimed market size of 100 launches per annum.

Pegasus have been delivering small mass launches for many years – and they do not see this market segment claimed by Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab have promised much – but I would suggest are already well behind schedule with as far as I am aware no launch scheduled for some time yet meaning that commercial operation in 2016 is no more than a pipe dream.

Some very rough numbers would suggest achieving the pricing they have advertised is at risk.

A manufacturing operation to support this program would be huge and require massive investment and commensurate operating costs.

My view is this program will first of all be delayed – then it will require further funding – then is will find the market for 100 launches per annum is a figment of their imagination – then the economics won’t stack up and a massive restructuring will be required to operate a stripped down bare bones operation delivering a shadow of what has been projected.

I wish Rocket Lab well but history and some manufacturing experience all point to real problems emerging with this project in the not too distant future.

Brilliant. I am sure these guys are thinking about the future when they can power the electric pumps using a microwave beam from an earth station.

I have been concerned by the complete lack of any verifiable test of carbon fibre LOX tank, specifically because this is a long sought after breakthrough that organisation’s with far larger budgets & expertise have not solved. Surely their would be papers, test results, photos or videos of testing?, as this alone would be world leading breakthrough. So far only Microcosm has demonstrated a carbon fibre tank & flown it as a structural component of a rocket. And this was a fairly small sub-orbital launch & by no means an accurate representation of an orbital LV trajectory.

Rocket Lab appear to have been totally overtaken by events as we now have two competing organisations that have demonstrated return to launch capability of very capable rockets.

This totally new and radical approach will totally destroy the economics of traditional launch economics.

This is a dramatic step change – a breakthrough in technology from which there is no escape from traditional incremental approaches that Rocket Lab have adopted.

Unless Rocket Lab can very quickly demonstrate a re-useable rocket – and they are years away from that having not yet demonstrated a launch – they are doomed to become a footnote in history.

Competition can deliver wonderful outcomes as it has done to rocket technology but it takes no prisoners – there is no second prize.

As stated previously – I believe Rocket Lab have both grossly underestimated the degree of difficulty of what they are attempting and the very competitive market environment which they are attempting to enter.

You seem to hold a tremdous amount of knowledge, wisdom, and experience in economics and practical day to day business operations that I’d dare to bet stretch well beyond the aerospace industry. In any case, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

No competing organization has demonstrated the capability to return orbital rockets to launch. Blue Origin launches were suborbital, whereas SpaceX only managed to return the first stage and has not yet shown that it could fly again. Used boosters from SpaceX will cost $40 million instead of $60 million — the savings are not terribly dramatic.

Re: John Blundell’s comment. totally disagree we still don’t understand the maintenance regime required to keep thin walled launch vehicle structures in flight ready condition. You are totally jumping the gun on reusability and I would argue the same bold statements were made when the space shuttle was put into service, and it resulted in a nearly four fold increase in space access cost. I predict there will be many failures still and then the cost of reusing falcons will spiral into the unattractive realm.

If Rocketlab will fail it will not be because of reusable large launch vehicles, it will be because of unrealistic projections of launch demand & technologies that cost to much to develop ie “composite LOX tanks”..

Whilst I hear your concerns on the re-useability issues – Today after 4 successful launches they have now proved their technology will deliver the outcomes they have specified over multiple launches.

Therefore I think it is now fair to say with high levels of confidence they have obsoleted the Rocket Lab’s type approach of disposable of rockets of any design.

This approach really is now a proven quantum step change in launch economics and deserves our utmost admiration as a piece of truly brilliant engineering.

I state that my comments were untrue and that I intentionally stated them so as to smear RocketLab. I state that I am owning up to my actions and I request SFI to delete my prior comments.

Jason Pappafotis

Why always start with doom and gloom? Are you hoping commercial spaceflight will fail? We root for all of these players! SpaceX is truly amazing and I am a huge fan, but their primary objectives are much grander than simply launching satellites. The business did not begin with the intent of cornering the unmanned LEO market. SpaceX was founded to conquer manned spacefliht and Mars colonization. That leaves a giant market for Rocket Lab in the unmmanned LEO/moon space. It takes only 3 days to 3D print a Rutherford Engine, so the manufacturing hurdles are not impossible… they just need some innovation and the kind of unbridled determination seen in people like Elon Musk. I’m giving Rocket Lab kudos for entering the market in an appropriate space and shooting for some big goals without directly competing with SpaceX. A solid Kiwi engine factory would be pretty awesome for the people there, as well as for commercial spaceflight.

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