Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck explains how he will compete with Spacex

Rocket Lab has been building rockets at Long Beach for over a decade, competing with SpaceX in a less discussed area of ​​the space industry: satellite launches. But growing interest in space exploration has prompted CEO Peter Beck to rethink his strategy.

“What we’re trying to build is a new generation of space companies,” Beck said.

Even as Rocket Lab’s grip tightens in the satellite launch market, Beck looks to a future where people can visit Mars or Venus. Last year, the native New Zealander sent a small craft carrying a probe to explore the atmosphere on Venus and look for signs of life. Beck, an engineer who founded the company in 2006, said he was ready to equip their latest rocket for human flight.

For now, Rocket Lab is sending out satellites from its small rocket, Electron, which can capture orbital images of the Earth for research as well as a range of other uses, including GPS tracking. The company touted itself as a cheaper alternative to SpaceX, with its Electron rocket around 60 feet tall. It has largely cornered the market, competing mainly with SpaceX.

Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab

But he just signed one of his biggest deals, a $ 24.4 million contract with the US Space Force to develop a rocket that can carry around 25 times the amount of Electron. The Neutron, which aims to carry more than 17,000 pounds, will still be below the capacity of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, but it will be a necessary expansion for Rocket Lab.

It comes as the US government turns to private companies like Rocket Lab to send satellites and other research equipment into space for them. The bigger rocket will help Rocket Lab keep pace – and it also brings the company closer to challenging Elon Musk’s hold on the $ 200 billion space technology industry.

Neutron is not yet built and Beck doesn’t expect it to be completed until 2024. But the speed of change is already pushing him to think beyond just launching satellites and cornering the eventual tourism market. spatial.

Galactic Virgo sent Richard Branson into space in July, and Blue Origin brought founder Jeff Bezos and several other private citizens in orbit a month later. SpaceX too just completed a charity mission who sent four novice astronauts into space for several days.

Beck told dot.LA that the plan is to make Neutron capable of sending humans into space as well, but in the meantime he will focus on his core business. Beck spoke with dot.LA about the company’s biggest contract to date and Rocket Lab’s future plans.

This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

First, why is this latest Space Force contract important? Is this really the biggest government contract in Rocket Lab history?

Usually our contracts are for services rather than development. (This is the first time the government has invested in the company’s rocket development).

The most important thing about this is for the government to be exposed to all the new technologies that we are developing and to get to know the vehicle (the Neutron). They enter the ground floor to really understand the vehicle and what we are building.

What is the ideal launch client for Rocket Lab?

We have a lot of operational experience with Electron, and what we’ve learned from this is that a 50/50 mix of government and commerce is really healthy for the business.

Government customers move around quite often (launches), while commercial customers generally wonder “how fast can we get into orbit”. The two seem to complement each other very well. We won’t be dedicating Neutron just to government launches.

Would Neutron be able to bring humans into space?

The vehicle must be able to fly in inhabited space.

We don’t develop any particular manned spaceflight capsule or programs, (but) we also know that manned spaceflight is going to continue to grow, so if you’re building a vehicle of this class to market it, you need to make sure. sure that it is capable of manned space flights.

(Making a rocket for astronauts) fundamentally changes the way you design the vehicle and the last thing we wanted to do was go back and redesign big parts of the vehicle in the future. We have the requirements in advance and we make sure the vehicle is certifiable. Are we going to certify it (fly with humans)? Not before having a mission and an obligation to do so. But the vehicle will be certifiable.

Would Rocket Lab ever make its own satellites instead of launching them for others?

What we’re trying to build is a new generation of space companies.

If you look at what we’ve done to date, we build spacecraft, we build launchers, and we supply components to a wide variety of customers. Ultimately where we go as a business will be (be) a great launch supplier. We will be a great supplier of (launch) satellites, but ultimately we will also start building our own constellations of spacecraft or satellites in the future. It’s a bit early for us to do that now – what we’re focusing on right now is performing and developing all the abilities, but I think ultimately that’s the logical place to go.

What advantage does Rocket Lab potentially have over SpaceX?

The reality is that there are two private companies that have successfully put satellites into orbit, let alone reliably, and that is SpaceX and Rocket Lab.

The difference we’ve always had is that we had to do it at a much more affordable price and we had to write off a lot of the costs in a much smaller sticker price. We had to be very innovative in the way we solved a lot of problems.

We have all of Electron’s operational experience. We have all of Electron’s reusable experience and we get a redesign. We get a blank sheet of paper. So when you look at a Neutron, when we finally reveal and announce the vehicle setup, you should stand in front of this thing and think you’re 2050, not 2020. We’ve innovated in areas that we think will be quite disruptive. and in some areas would be very boring. But the long term is that we think we can bring a very competitive vehicle to market.

Former space players like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are missing from this round of grants – what do you think they are being overwhelmed by new launch vendors?

It goes without my saying it; I think that the space industry is evolving and that we have to be competitive.

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