How Rocket Lab questions the fundamentals of building both rockets and launch companies


Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck in a light blue suit in front of a rocket.
Image Credits: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck has had an eventful couple of years, despite the unpredictable challenges that COVID-19 threw in the path of the rocket maker’s LA and New Zealand-based operations. Just this year, Rocket Lab had its public market debut, revealed its plans for a new medium-lift launch vehicle called Neutron and acquired two companies (on top of its first acquisition from 2020).

I spoke to Beck at our TC Sessions: Space 2021 event where we covered what’s new and special about Neutron, and how it leverages the pedigree of the company’s Electron rockets to challenge some assumptions about how bigger rockets are built. We also dove into his vision for Rocket Lab and what it aims to accomplish in terms of making it even easier for prospective customers to get their stuff to space.

Beck dished on everything from the unique way that Rocket Lab plans to land the reusable first stage of Neutron back on Earth, to the “Hungry Hippo”-type design of the fairing that allows it to avoid being discarded post-use. He also described his vision for what Rocket Lab hopes to become through its built-out of more service offerings, both through acquisitions and in-house product development.

Check out these excerpts, and then watch the full interview below.

On ditching landing legs and improving aerodynamics:

It’s all about removing as many components and as many complexities as possible [ … ] We had this epiphany one day, where we were like, we’re working on these landing legs, and we’re just going around in circles endlessly with mechanisms, and how are we going to service those mechanisms, and all the rest of it. And then we were like, let’s just stop, and let’s just not have landing legs. So let’s just have a wide enough base, so that we can resist any of the kind of tipping or creeping movements.

So we start off with this big wide base and drew a satellite in the payload and the upper stage top and the fairing diamond, and then just drew two lines that joined it all up, and it looked like a traffic cone. That’s actually the optimum vehicle: It has no legs, it’s just a nice stable kind of structure. And then as we started doing some of the CFD [computational fluid dynamics] on it, and some of the aerodynamics and some of the reentry work, and that traffic cone proved very useful, because you have this decreasing pressure over the length of the vehicle, which means you don’t have any shockwaves attaching to it, which is always a challenge with reentry.

On how to build a space company that actually serves the needs of modern customers:

My view is that in the future the large successful space companies are not going to be just a launch company or just a satellite company. Because when you combine those two things together, you get so much synergy, that it’s incredibly powerful [ … ] Depending on which report you read, it’s a $1.6 trillion industry or a $2 trillion industry by 2030, or whatever date you choose. But all of that is predicated on the fact that a lot of these programs are mega constellations, and a lot of these programs can actually deliver their services to orbit. Now, if you look across the space industry, it’s all kind of subscale. It’s a lot of really, really unique, bespoke little businesses doing amazing things all at subscale.

But in order for this to become a trillion dollar industry, fundamentally, something has to change in the industry, and there has to be somebody there at scale, producing all the things that everybody needs to be able to build their satellites and deploy their constellations. And you can bury your head in the sand and say, ‘Oh, someone else will do that,’ but ultimately, unless somebody sorts it out, there will be no mega constellations, there will be no trillion dollar space industry, and there will be no need for Neutron. So you’ve got to help create this environment that ultimately you want to participate and thrive in. The space systems part of the businesses is as much about enabling the trillion dollar industry as it is enjoying it.

Read more about TC Sessions: Space 2021 on TechCrunch

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