Date posted: 1/12/2016 5 min read

Kiwi rocket scientist Peter Beck on the space economy

Self-taught Kiwi rocket scientist and CEO of Rocket Lab Peter Beck explains how – and why – he’s making space more accessible

In brief

  • Globally, the space economy is estimated to be worth US$314b annually
  • Any country that has a space programme is automatically elevated in status over other countries. Generally, it’s the super-power nations that have a space programme
  • The company hires people from other space-faring nations, in addition to training people in the skills needed through the PhD programme and through apprenticeships

Photography by Alistair Guthrie 

The CEO of New Zealand aerospace firm Rocket Lab has a clear mission. “Fundamentally, what we’re trying to do here is enable access to space.” That means making space “open for business” more affordably than some of the industry’s big players.

At its Auckland base, Rocket Lab is working to provide frequent, low-cost rocket launch services to a growing international small satellite industry, which enables services including telecommunications and navigation. It aims to provide at least 100 launches per year. Test flights will launch from New Zealand this year, with the first commercial launches scheduled for 2017.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a customer. Another is US company Moon Express, which has enlisted Rocket Lab to launch three missions to the moon, hoping for touchdown next year. They chose Rocket Lab for its ability to reduce the cost and time involved in putting together a mission, Beck says.

“This will be the very first private mission out of low Earth orbit. It’s a massive milestone for humanity, really, and we’re just really honoured to be a part of the mission.”

Lift off

Beck founded Rocket Lab in 2007 and has established the company in New Zealand and the United States. An acclaimed scientist and engineer, he eschewed university, favouring on-the-job training.

“I didn’t formally study but I learnt what I needed to learn on the job. With engineering, whether you apply it to a rocket or anything else, it’s all kind of the same.”

He says there are a number of reasons why his start-up can make space access cheaper.

“The first thing is that we build the entire launch vehicle in-house ourselves. And it’s a small launch vehicle – we’re not building massive pieces of machinery.”

Then, the technology used — including carbon composite technologies and 3D printing — helps keep the price down. The Electron Launch Vehicle is powered by the Rutherford engine — named after New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford. It’s the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use 3D printing for all primary components including its engine chamber, injector, pumps and main propellant valves.

But it’s the ownership of a launch site at Mahia Peninsula on the east coast of the North Island, officially opened in September, that Beck cites as “phenomenally important” in cost reduction.

“If you go to other ranges around the world, the beginning price is a million dollars every time you want to even have an attempt to launch.”

The economy of space

Globally, the space economy is estimated to be worth US$314b annually. Beck says the commercialisation of space offers tangible and intangible benefits for an economy.

“Any country that has a space programme is automatically elevated in status over other countries. Generally, it’s the super-power nations that have a space programme.

“It’s a very elite kind of club to be part of and I think New Zealand is now being recognised as not only participating in space but being somewhat of an entrepreneur and a leader.”

Beck says there is a lot of opportunity for the country to grow a bigger, more diverse space industry. Rocket Lab is committed to this growth, and collaborated with Canterbury University to develop a PhD programme which has so far seen three graduates specialise in aspects of rocketry.

Beck believes New Zealand’s government has “done everything exactly right” to encourage the country’s participation in the global space economy.

“They’ve created the right agreements between America and New Zealand to allow good collaboration. They’ve created a space agency to create good regulation and they’re very proactive in trying to establish the industry.”

The New Zealand Space Agency was established in 2016 as the lead agency for space policy and legislation.

“They’ve kind of been spawned from our activities,” Beck says.

While Rocket Lab is a private company, it has received some public funding, which critics have dubbed “corporate welfare”. But Beck insists taxpayers are getting a good return for their money.

“We do have a research and development grant for Rocket Lab New Zealand but I’m always quick to point out that we have to spend 80 cents to get 20 cents back.”

He says Rocket Lab has employed more than 100 of the best rocket scientists in the world and has created a new industry in New Zealand.

Help wanted: must be rocket scientist

As he taught himself rocket science, Beck also taught himself business.

“I guess you can kind of tell from my lack of university background that I’m more the “doer” than the reader,” he laughs.

“We’re a start-up company so I’m the CEO, the CFO, the chief engineer — I cover a number of fields.”

He enjoys business, viewing it like a game of chess.

“You’ve got to make sure you manoeuvre all the right pieces and be smart.”

But the company has one big struggle in New Zealand — there is not enough home-grown talent.

“We need such a diverse range of skills, we need really focussed, attention to detail assembly technicians through to PhDs in really unique fields.”

The company hires people from other space-faring nations, in addition to training people in the skills needed through the PhD programme and through apprenticeships.

Beck likes to personally interview potential employees and seeks some key traits.

“You have to be a very driven and passionate person — there’s no room for a lazy person at Rocket Lab. We work really, really hard here.”

And candidates need to be “at the absolute top of their game”, whatever their field.

A great Kiwi innovator

Beck, whose accolades include Innovator of the Year at the 2015 New Zealander of the Year Awards, has been described by New Zealand’s Minister for Economic Development Steven Joyce as: “… in the mold of other great Kiwi innovators like William Hamilton, Bill Gallagher and Ernest Rutherford.”

Beck believes the Electron programme is a good example of Kiwi ingenuity, as is the belief in success.

“Launch vehicles are typically never built by commercial companies, they’re always built by governments. In a typical Kiwi way we say ‘we don’t care that there has only ever been one other private company to successfully build a launch vehicle and the rest have been governments’.”

That other private company is California-based SpaceX, which has 4,000 employees and is run by billionaire tech mogul Elon Musk.

“They’re currently the only private company that has ever put a satellite in orbit.”

So what made Beck think he could succeed?

He’s been building rockets for as long as he can remember and on a trip to the United States in 2006 he saw small companies building engines similar to what he was building in his garage at home. They were experiencing the same problems and he realised there wasn’t actually a big knowledge or capability gap.

Rockets are pretty hard

Beck is philosophical about inevitable challenges that arise through his work.

“Launch vehicles — rockets — are pretty hard, so you’ve got to have a thick skin for setbacks. Generally with a rocket, if something goes wrong, it goes really wrong.”

On the day Beck spoke with Acuity, a US$62m rocket designed and built by SpaceX exploded during a pre-flight test at Florida’s Cape Canaveral and its payload was destroyed.

Beck says this is not good for the industry and reinforces how hard the work is, and the narrow margin for error.

“A lot of those people working at SpaceX are good friends and we have a number of ex-SpaceX employees here so we all feel for our competitors and our colleagues.”

Aspiring to great things

While Beck is happy to talk about his work, he doesn’t like to talk about himself.

“I’m actually quite a private person.”

But he will divulge his parents expected him to work hard and aspire to great things, rather than just punching a time clock.

So what do they think of his achievements?

“I guess they’re probably proud.” As for Beck’s own feelings about his work, he says it’s what he wanted to do with his life.

“So it’s really fulfilling, but there’s still a lot of work ahead of us. Maybe one day I’ll sit down on a beach with a bottle of wine, but I’ve got a way to go before that.”

This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.

Fast facts

  • Who?

    Peter Beck, 39, self-taught rocket scientist and CEO of Rocket Lab.

  • What?

    Creating lower cost rockets for the small-satellite market.

  • Why?

    To make space more accessible.

  • How?

    Making things cheaper by building the launch vehicle in-house, using 3D printing, and having its own launch site in NZ.

  • When?

    Test flights scheduled for late 2016, payloads 2017.

  • Stop press

    As Acuity went to print, Beck was named New Zealand EY Entrepreneur of the Year. He won the technology and emerging industries category.