Rocket Lab aiming for two space flights a month and a second launch pad
They already have liftoff – and now Kiwi space company Rocket Lab is eyeing up two space flights a month and a second launch pad as it ramps up its operation.
Founder Peter Beck made the bold prediction ahead of the two-week launch window for the company's first commercial rocket opening on Friday.
There was tremendous growth in the industry, and no shortage of work from clients who maintain satellite fleets in the hundreds, Beck said.
"We'll just keep scaling until there's no point of building or launching any more."
This would hopefully mean getting to the point where there was one flight a month from its launch site on the Māhia Peninsula later in the year.
That could be increased to two launches a month by 2019 and a launch a week by 2020.
Rocket Lab's staff is currently growing between three and five people a week in New Zealand, while its current market valuation sits at over $1.4 billion.
Although technically an American company, 75 per cent of its roughly 230 staff are Kiwi.
Growth has been rapid, with the Electron Rocket programme launched in 2013 on the back of venture capital from Silicon Valley.
The Rutherford engine – the world's first and only 3D-printed rocket engine – followed soon after.
While Rocket Lab's research, development and launch control facility is in Auckland, it also has a 1.2 hectare production facility in the United States that is aiming to build 100 engines during 2018.
"Rocket Lab is one of these ten-year overnight successes," Beck said.
"I started the company way back in 2006, then the next milestone was in 2009 when we became the first private company in the southern hemisphere to reach space."
Along with a Kiwi can-do attitude, there's a certain amount of classic Kiwi humour thrown into the operation.
The first test flight, which failed 100 seconds before reaching orbit, was aptly named "It's A Test". Their second launch at the start of 2018, cautiously named "Still Testing", successfully delivered four spacecraft into a variety of orbits.
That success got the company's confidence up, and has led to its third test – launching another rocket named "It's Business Time" sometime between April 20 and May 3.
"We will be scaling massively, with rockets coming off the production line at just a tad over one a month right now."
There are a number of factors that have helped Rocket Lab get its foothold. The first was its concentration on what Beck calls "the race to the small".
While the likes of SpaceX grab headlines globally in their race to create bigger rockets that carry larger payloads and aim for Mars, Moore's law has created a new market for rockets capable of deploying far smaller cube satellites, which come as small as a football.
The "race to the big" was a needle-mover for civilisation, but most of the stuff we relied on in our day-to-day lives – GPS, weather forecasts, telecommunication services – all relied on the race to the small.
"A spacecraft that was the size of your average family car is now the size of a microwave or smaller," Beck said.
"Unless you're lifting humans or school buses to orbit, what you want is small and responsive little rockets, and that's the exact market niche that we've gone after."
It's not such a small niche either – the Electron rocket is capable of lifting about two-thirds of all the satellites launched in 2015.
"We searched the world for a launch site that would achieve the inclination that we needed and the frequency that we needed, and we ended up back in New Zealand," Beck said.
"New Zealand has a huge advantage over most countries, because you can't launch over land and you can't launch over other countries, so what really suits you well is a small island in the middle of nowhere."