Q&A with Peter Beck from Rocket Lab

COLORADO SPRINGS – extremely busy and looking to the future. That’s a short and sweet assessment of Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. In the pantheon of private space groups, Rocket Lab is going strong, and Beck wants to keep it that way.

Established in 2006, Rocket LabIts quest to pioneer affordable access to space was characterized by the development of space. Electron, a launch vehicle designed to give dedicated trips to small satellites in orbit. The rocket’s first successful orbit took place in January 2018 from the company’s New Zealand launch site, located on the North Island’s Māhia Peninsula.

Fast forward to today, and Electron has flown in them 46 times, lofting more than 180 satellites for organizations in the private and public sector, including the national security payload of the United States.

With its headquarters in Long Beach, California, Rocket Lab has launched a trio of pads, two located in New Zealand and the third in Virginia, on Wallops Island. In addition, the company’s Photon spacecraft platform has been selected to support NASA missions to the moon and Marsand Rocket Lab plans to launch Photon on private life hunting mission to Venus.

closeup of a smiling man sitting on a sofa in a hotel room.

closeup of a smiling man sitting on a sofa in a hotel room.

The larger, partially reusable Neutron rocket is now in development at the top of the company’s to-do list for use in large spacecraft and satellite constellations.

As this short summary shows, Rocket Lab has a lot of irons in the fire.

“We joke that a Rocket Lab year is like a dog year,” Beck said. “One year of Rocket Lab feels like five.”

In an exclusive interview, Space.com caught up with the enterprising entrepreneur during the Space Foundation’s 39th Space Symposium, held here earlier this month. The following conversation has been long edited.

Related: Facts and information about Rocket Lab.

Space.com: The track record for space startups is amazing – many companies have come and gone. Why do you mention your success and growth?

Peter Beck: I feel like an old man in the community now. First of all, I think we are very pragmatic. Execution is the main focus. One of the things I noticed about the space industry when I got into it is that so many businesses develop something cool and then try to figure out how to sell it. We identify problems and then we go to solve problems. By creating value, then you have built something that people want.

Space.com: What was the first problem you tackled?

Beck: First, it was Electron. The small satellite industry is growing exponentially and a dedicated small launcher is needed. So we started there. The plan was always much bigger.

Space.com: How do you temper ‘more grand?’

Beck: Half of my brain is the go-getter entrepreneur. The realist engineer is the other half of my brain. And they wrestle with each other all the time. We end up in the middle… We are ambitious and we go after big things. But we are also very careful and pragmatic about how we make them happen. We do not bet the company on anything. We do it step by step and we keep growing.

Space.com: Can you grow too fast, making it hard to keep track of everything?

Beck: It doesn’t seem like it’s getting any quieter, that’s for sure. Rocket Lab has a very unique and diverse culture. We have bought companies. So when you buy a company, that’s another cultural challenge. But it is quite simple. Just do what you said you were going to do and execute. We have about 1,800 people, which is more than I thought we would ever have. I think if you’re anchored to a few key elements and you understand what makes you special, and then anchor to those, that’s important.

Space.com: What are the milestones ahead, say over the course of a year?

Beck: Two-thirds of our revenue comes from our space systems business. A lot of people see us as a rocket company. It didn’t help when we named Rocket Lab. We are an end-to-end space company, providing spacecraft design and manufacturing services, as well as satellite components, flight software, and other things. We are now shoulder to shoulder with the other primes.

The Neutron launch vehicle is the big sucking sound in the room. We just need to get it to the pad. There are many people who want that booster on the pad. We have a big job ahead of us, not only to have it on the pad, but to bring Neutron into production and provide it as a reliable alternative at launch.

a black rocket is standing on the launch pad under the starry night sky.a black rocket is standing on the launch pad under the starry night sky.

a black rocket is standing on the launch pad under the starry night sky.

Space.com: From the space exploration side of Rocket Lab, what about your private mission to Venus?

Beck: This is an example of where the entrepreneur gets a little carried away, but the engineer brings him back. As a private project, it’s a nights and weekends thing for the team. Anyone involved brings their own resources. I admit, I love interplanetary, and it is really born from the drive to answer the question, Are we the only life in the universe or not? Venus it has the potential to answer that question, so it’s worth doing so.

But we have many customers, satellites to build, rockets to deliver. So the Venus mission is constantly moving to the side because we have business to run. But if the side of the entrepreneurs succeeds, we will go to the launch tomorrow. The reality is that we have to deliver to our customers first.

There is a good Venus window next year, so maybe. I’m not going to commit to it. It depends on where we are. We have a lot going on right now with big contracts to fill.

Related: Life on Venus? Why is it not an absurd idea


— Rocket Lab launches 4 private satellites, recovers booster from sea (video)

— Rocket Lab targets late 2024 launch of private Venus mission

— NASA’s tiny CAPSTONE cubesat launches on pioneering moon mission

Space.com: Rocket Lab serves as mission control for several spacecraft, such as the private MethaneSat and Varda Space Industries’ manufacturing effort in space which uses your Photon spacecraft. Why is that role important to the company?

Beck: At the end of the day, we’re trying to build an end-to-end space company, and that includes mission operations. We can design, build and operate your spacecraft. The big successful space companies of the future like the model we are building.

Space.com: Rocket Lab has also had launch failures. How painful is that experience, and how well are you finding the root cause?

Beck: We are very strong with that, unfortunately. We invite all our customers to join a failure review board, and we’re proud of that. The electron is a highly instrumented vehicle, and we closely monitor so many things on each flight. Every flight we have big data reviews using AI [artificial intelligence] consume the data and look for any anomalies or anything out of the family. It’s part of making sure you don’t fail. But it happens.

The last failure It was like 10 different things that had to come up and we had to go back carefully with thousands of hours of testing. The chain of events that led to that last anomaly is amazing. This is the hard thing about sending in particular. It takes no prisoners. There is no room for any kind of assumptions.

Space.com: Your success outweighs your troubles. What’s going on on the factory floor at Rocket Lab, in terms of manufacturing?

Beck: Manufacturing is manufacturing. I don’t think there is any fundamental change. Sure there are a bunch of technologies, like 3D printing. We were the first to put a 3D printed machine into orbit. Several companies have built an entire thesis around 3D printing a rocket. That doesn’t make sense to me. There are many buzz words.

Since the 1950s, metallics have not changed. Aluminum has the same strength as stainless steel. Carbon fiber has changed. We apply that exclusively throughout the entire launch vehicle. That gives us a real advantage when it comes to lightweight structures.

Space.com: How do you see Rocket Lab in five or 10 years?

Beck: That’s a long way to look ahead. But I think the big, successful space companies will model what we’re building. That is, you have your own address. You have the ability to build whatever satellites you want at scale. You can deploy infrastructure at scale. That’s where it’s all going.

It is the evidence of that Constellation Now. SpaceX is not going away. If you want to compete with them, then you have to build whatever satellite you want and have your own ride to space.

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