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Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck and the launch of a New Zealand space age

Line of Defence Magazine, Autumn 2018

Founder, CEO and CTO of Rocket Lab, Peter Beck.Founder, CEO and CTO of Rocket Lab, Peter Beck.


In this exclusive Line of Defence interview, editor Nicholas Dynon chats with founder, CEO and CTO of Rocket Lab, Peter Beck, about launching satellites, thinking globally, and flying for business with no meetings planned.


The successful flight of the “Still Testing” Electron rocket from the Mahia Peninsula in January has paved the way for Rocket Lab to begin operational flights of its revolutionary smallsat launcher. It’s the latest chapter in a story that is fast becoming the stuff of New Zealand legend.

The Mahia Peninsula site is licensed to launch rockets every 72 hours for 30 years. It’s a frequency that Rocket Lab aims to match by launching small commercial payloads into orbit on dedicated small launch vehicles that are significantly lighter and more cost-effective than traditional rocket systems.

But by putting payloads into orbit, Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck hasn’t just created a very profitable commercial venture. He’s blazed a trail that has so far resulted in the creation of a New Zealand national space agency in 2016, the passing of entirely new set of space legislation in 2017, and – ultimately – the unlikely birth of a New Zealand space industry.

It’s an industry potentially worth billions to the economy. The prospect of New Zealand as an international hub for satellite launches and related specialist areas, such as satellite design and the development of satellite data products, has big implications for sectors as diverse as agriculture, hazard management, oceanography, meteorology, communications and defence.


LoD: It’s estimated that Rocket Lab and its launch facility will contribute between $600 million to $1.55 billion to the New Zealand economy over the next 20 years. How accurate is this, and how big can Rocket Lab get?

PB: Those figures are from a report commissioned by the government. From our perspective it’s relatively conservative, and the opportunity for a space industry in New Zealand outside of Rocket Lab is pretty immense. The space industry last year was worth USD 380 billion, so if we’re successful at launching with the frequency we aim to be launching, and if the small satellite industry continues to gain strength, then I think it’s a very conservative number.


LoD: Callaghan Innovation and its predecessor Industrial Research Limited has been a part of Rocket Lab’s journey. How important has Callaghan Innovation’s contribution to Rocket Lab been, and how important is Callaghan for New Zealand innovators in general?

PB: I worked at IRL as a research engineer, and they were very supportive of what I would call my ‘out of work activity’ before I started Rocket Lab, but they didn’t technically play any role in Rocket Lab as a business.

We’ve enjoyed a very strong relationship with Callaghan Innovation, and it’s a testament to them for sticking by us to the point of a successful business and a successful industry resulting from their investment.

I think Callaghan can play a very important role although perhaps they’re not seen as such by as many as they could be. But the message I’m always very clear on is that if you’re trying to build a large successful business then you need to look well past New Zealand – not only for market but also investment. Callaghan is a great supporter, but it’s really up to businesses to think much bigger and much more globally.


LoD: In terms of the international space industry, with growth rates of three times world economic growth, there’s no doubt a rush to fill that space competitively. In September last year the Australian Government announced its commitment to a national space agency, and the state of South Australia has created a new space industry centre. There appears to be an interest across the Tasman in doing similar things. Where is your competition?

PB: It’s great that New Zealand is handing it to Australia… that’s a great start! But [seriously], if you look at the where the growth sector is within the industry, in the hardware area it’s around small satellites.

If you consider the big geosynchronous birds, their flight rate is static if not declining. If you look at small satellites, their growth curve is exponential. So, the growth rate you quoted earlier is correct, because you’ve got some very large multi-billion-dollar platforms declining and the rapid rise of very affordable multi-million-dollar platforms. In certain parts of the industry the growth is exponential, and in certain other parts it’s declining.

In terms of competition from a launch perspective, there are about 40 companies that are trying to compete with Rocket Lab. We’re clearly the first to arrive on the market and are enjoying that first mover advantage. However, there will be others.

One of the key aspects of our program that’s very different to everybody else’s is that we don’t just focus on the hardware but we also focus on some of the other things that aren’t so fun, such as a regulatory environment that enables a very high flight rate, and a privately-owned launch pad as opposed to a government-provided launch pad and launch services.

Although there are around forty or so companies looking to compete with Rocket Lab, there’s really none that have the complete offering of private launch pad and regulatory environment and all the things that we enjoy and have worked so hard to create.


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LoD: I understand that the Outer Space and High Altitudes Activities Act came into force mid-last year, and obviously Rocket Lab had been doing its thing for some time prior to that. To what extent were you part of the building of the New Zealand space bureaucracy and regulatory regime, and to what extent has that been an advantage?

PB: The New Zealand Government had to create the regulatory environment to regulate us, and full credit to the government and the New Zealand Space Agency because the easy thing would have been to say “no”. But we were able to show a compelling enough case that “this was good for New Zealand and could potentially be a very big business” that the government got in behind it, resourced it well, and made it happen – and made it happen in a very expedient timeframe.

We have been heavily consulted because at the moment we’re the only people being regulated by the Act to any great significance.

The most important thing to me about the legislation wasn’t so much what was written in the Act but rather the first few words at the very front of the Act. It doesn’t start off by saying “we’re here to regulate the space industry”, but rather “we’re here to enable the space industry.”

I think that’s a very important aspect of the regulations because it distinguishes New Zealand from a lot of other countries. If you look at Australia, for example, those words don’t appear in their legislation at all. It’s all about “how we can regulate it” and not “how we can stimulate it.” So, all credit to the New Zealand Space Agency and the previous government for doing that.


LoD: Proportionately what industries are your customers likely to come from?

PB: They’re from really quite a wide range of industries. We have some customers that are providing weather satellites, Earth observation is a big market for us. Communication is another big market for us. It ranges quite significantly from very large traditional space players doing very traditional things to young start-up companies in Silicon Valley looking to create a very disruptive business model. We’ve got a fairly even distribution of these on the manifest for this year and for next.


LoD: Your customers are likely to come from what parts of the world. Is it mainly the US or is there some diversity?

PB: At the moment it’s primarily the US because that’s the market we’re focused on, and our headquarters are in the US. Our focus is the US but there’s still a lot happening in Europe and Asia that we’ll look to bring on.


LoD: Have you had any interest from the New Zealand government in terms of utilizing your services in the future?

PB: I think it’s a bit early for that just yet. I think that New Zealand as a whole is behind what can be done and what is being done with space as an infrastructure. A lot of the problems faced by our international fisheries, for example, can be very, very easily solved with spacecraft and the persistence that space gives you to solve those bigger issues.

It’s early days, but the knowledge base and understanding is growing at a vertical rate. We certainly look forward to the New Zealand Government utilising some of the assets and space access they uniquely have.


LoD: Do you have any words of wisdom for small innovators in New Zealand’s defence industry struggling to get off first base with their ideas.

PB: My best advice has always been “get on a plane”, and it’s perfectly fine to get on a plane with no meetings organised. I’ve found that that’s sometimes the most effective thing to do. It’s all about relationships, and unless you build those relationships you’re never going to do any business. Email is certainly easy to communicate with, but it’s a thoroughly ineffective tool.

It’s just really important to get on a plane and build those relationships and networks. You’ll have a thousand meetings that are a waste of time, but you’re looking for that one that actually yields results. I can recall having many meetings where I walked out thinking “that was a bit of a waste of time,” but you never know who knows who and who bumps into who.

It’s a giant chess game, and in order to play the chess game you need to be out there moving the pieces.


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