Transcript: Space4U podcast, Peter Beck

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hello, I’m Andrew de Naray with the Space Foundation, and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the amazing people who make today’s space exploration possible. Today we are joined by Peter Beck. Peter is the founder and chief executive of Rocket Lab, a space technology company and global leader in dedicated small satellite launches.


Since founding the business in 2006, Peter has grown Rocket Lab to become a globally recognized industry leader in space, and a billion-dollar company, employing hundreds of world-class engineers and technicians, Peter established Rocket Labs, Electron Orbital Launch program in 2013. Electron is the world’s first, fully carbon composite launch vehicle powered by 3D-printed electric turbo pump fed rocket engines since the first electron launch in 2017, Rocket Lab has delivered scores of satellites to orbit, enabling operations in space, debris mitigation, Earth observation, ship, and airplane tracking, and radio communications.


Peter also oversees the development of Rocket Labs satellite program, Photon, which developed space and craft buses tailored for a range of small satellite missions to low Earth orbit or lunar and interplanetary destinations. Thank you for joining us today, Peter. Thank you very much. You’ve had an interest in rockets since you were a child, long before New Zealand or Australia had an established space agency.


Do you remember what fascinated you most about rockets and space as a child? Yeah, thank you. You can go back very, to very, very early-on age. Um, I remember, you know, my father would tell the story that when he took me outside, probably I was about three or four and, uh, pointed up to the sky and we watched a satellite going overhead.


And, um, you know, I, I remember him telling me that we had this conversation about, um, you know, that, that satellite was manmade and, and I naturally, you know, a child would ask, well, are all the stars in the sky manmade? And he pointed out that no, those are suns and they have planets around them.


And there could be some somebody looking back at us right now and ever since that moment, that was kind of the moment that set it all off where I can go outside and just look at the stars and imagine for hours and hours. And, and that, that’s what really sparked the whole passion with space really off.


And there’s only two things that really do that. And that one is engineering and one is space. So it was, it was almost set in stone from the beginning that how it ended up here. It’s great. I can make my own stars, right. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. You gotta be careful. You gotta be careful doing that as it turns out.


So tell us how Rocket Lab was born. So it, it sort of started with, uh, almost a rocket pilgrimage where I went to the States in 2007 and I went and visited all of the places that I’d dreamed about working. So we visit lots of NASA centers and Lockheed and, and a bunch of the, you know, the space companies.


And I really realized two things. Firstly, the things that I felt were super important. Uh, in that case in small launch and small spacecraft weren’t really being addressed. And also learned that the things that I was doing in my own kind of workshop at home was, was really too dissimilar to what was happening out in the Mojave Desert.


So I kind of had this realization on the way back on the plane that, um, in some, in some respects I was quite disappointed because I kind of expected everybody to agree with what I felt about small launching and small satellites. And then on the other half, really excited that I just needed to do this myself.


And, uh, I drew the Rocket Lab logo on the plane. And by the time I landed, um, I was ready to incorporate Rocket Lab, quit my job. And the rest is history. That’s great. So out of disappointment, there was opportunity there pretty much. Yeah, I wish it was a more inspiring story, but that’s pretty much it. So how did it feel then to see that first Rocket Lab launch?


Well, I think, you know, for me personally, um, I was just immensely proud of the team. Uh, you know, uh, Rocket Lab is not one person. Um, you know, it’s, it’s a, it’s a, you know, 500 of the most passionate and dedicated and brilliant people that I could put together from all around the world. Um, so if everybody had a lot riding on that first vehicle and you know, it would have been a perfect flight to all, but other than, uh, we had a misconfigured.


A third-party ground system, actually a flight termination, uh, software box was not tipped. So what it was is a perfect flight apart from that, but it would probably, you know, the first flight was, was great. Uh, the second flight where, you know, it was a flawless deployment orbit in the circulation. We did absolutely everything.


That’s kind of the point in time where we, I knew that right now. Now we have a product. It’s time to get this product out to the marketplace and really do some good. But as you look across Rocket Lab now, you know, with a, I believe it’s the fourth most-launched rocket in the world, but I would say that really it’s, I feel like we’re 25, maybe 30% done at a squeeze, you know, small launch has been solved, but there’s just so much more to do.


Um, you know, satellites are the next thing that we’re really tackling to really democratize. Ideas and all, but getting on ideas and innovation, getting on orbit. So although, you know, the first rocket was naturally incredible, you know, really it, it was a very, very, very, very early step in the whole genesis of the company.


So, which mission that you conducted so far has been the most challenging and why. Most challenging. They’re all challenging. Like there’s never, there’s never a mission where we’re just slouching back in our seats. And you know, technically one of the missions we did, uh, that was pretty challenging is we took a spacecraft to, we first went into an elliptical orbit.


Then we, uh, we ignited a Periop stage engine and took it to a really high or, but, um, then we, um, Actually there’s more to it than that. So we, we needed to, uh, avoid the South American radiation anomaly. So we kind of threaded the needle and flew up under it and then popped up. And then we circularize the orbit.


Then we raised the orbit to a really high, almost to up into MEO, deployed the spacecraft. And then we did a second burn and basically disposed of that kick stage. We’re putting it into a really, really highly elliptical orbit and. Burning it up. So those were a bunch of different maneuvers, some really sick, tricky GNC.


Um, so that, that was a fun mission, but, uh, you know, the mission for the NRO, uh, to have the NRO as a customer, you know, that that’s a no kidding customer. Um, and that was, you know, that was personally very satisfying because, you know, we had very high… Well per accuracy requirements and a lot of requirements here, and the team pulled that off flawlessly personally, though, one of the best for me was NASA VCAs mission.


We did a couple of years ago was, was really that, that, that meant a lot personally, because don’t forget, you know, my, my original passion was in my dreams to go and work for NASA. And here we here, we were actually in delivering some really important scientific payloads to orbit. So that, that, that was, that was a moment for sure.


That’s a dream come true there. Yep. Yep. Excellent. Better watch what you wish for as it turns out. Why is it important for you to have launches at the frequency of once a week? Well, I think if you’re, if you’re launching it once a week, there’s a couple of things that have happened. Um, one, uh, you know, you are deploying infrastructure and all, but at that kind of rate, then you’re building something pretty spectacular.


And, um, you know, a lot of space companies have, have had visions while we all have visions, but, um, and they can be putting people on Mars or, um, mining asteroids or there’s, there’s, you know, there’s always a core purpose for a lot of space companies for us, you know, our core purpose purposes to build infrastructure and all, but to improve life on Earth.


That’s the reason why we, why we do what we do. And if you’re launching it one a week, then you’re building some pretty spectacular infrastructure that is going to have a really big impact. So I think. You know, ultimately that’s, that’s, that’s why that’s important. And without, without frequency and access to a domain, whether it be sea, land, or space, you haven’t got anything.


So, um, to get to that point, then you’ve really created, uh, an ease of access that really will enable wonderful things to happen. Of course, you know, we’ve all been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Can you tell us specifically how it has impacted Rocket Lab and your customers? Absolutely. So it was a crazy time, for sure.


So, you know, within, within Rocket Lab, apart from, you know, New Zealand, uh, took a really hard shutdown stance. So there was nothing open except medical and food kind of resources. Uh, so, uh, the factory was closed for five or six weeks. Um, and we actually had a rocket ship on the pad, we were ready to go. So we had to pull it back in and put it back in the integration facility.


And now we’re just, uh, we were just getting back out to launch it. Um, so the, the window opens 11th of June. Um, so w we’ll be we’re right back in it. However, the U.S. factory, because value is government DOD and, and, uh, defense contracts were able to continue through to support those missions. So as a result, we’ve, we’ve got a lot of backlog of rockets.


So this, this next few months here, now that New Zealand is back up to a hundred percent. Um, you know, I think there’s one active case in the entire country now. And no, no new cases for. You know, weeks and now, so we’re, we’re back at it at 150%. So you’re going to see some launches come off pretty rapidly here to catch back up.


We’re hoping that we can, by August, we can be back to, uh, where we are intending to be, um, with the manifests this, this time during the year. But I guess there’s a wider customer base and industry. I think that, you know, the space industry let’s, let’s be realistic about it has enjoyed a really long, warm summer.


And there’s a lot of, a lot of companies and concepts and entrepreneurs that have been in again, really successful investment, but not all of those are going to survive. And it’s, it’s, it’s a really tough place to be because, you know, a bunch of really good ideas and entrepreneurs, um, that were at the end of the runway, you know, are probably going to find themselves in trouble, but a bunch of ideas that were kind of much more a bit speculative that had good runways, uh, are going to survive.


So it’s very unfair, um, in a lot of ways, but, uh, you know, I’m really hoping that can be some good consolidation and joining forces to save those really good companies and teams. But what, I’m, what I’m not a big advocate and fan of at all is, uh, you know, governments coming in and injecting themselves.


And in certain parts of the supply chain, um, my view is very strongly that. If government wants to, to, to really help the industry, they need to stimulate at the highest level, not at low levels of the parts of the supply chain. So fund programs, lift programs, build satellites, led rocket companies, launches satellites.


The ground stations provide services. And so on. Don’t come in at a, at a rocket level, for example, and buy a bunch of rockets because that’s not going to help the industry at all. So, you know, I know that might sound funny for a rocket company decided, but, um, we want, if there’s any stimulus to be, to be had, we want it to be put at the highest point of the supply chain and everything trickled down and keep the supply chain from top to bottom in, in launch, in, in spacecraft, all in tip top condition.


What parts of the supply chain have they been getting involved with? I haven’t, I haven’t, I didn’t, haven’t seen huge amount of examples yet. Um, but there’s, there’s a lot of noise in the system. Um, and so, you know, I, I count or knew I would want to pull out any specific examples, but, uh, you know, the signal-to-noise ratio is, is extreme and, you know, small launches is a classic example.


That’s been identified as really, really under threat and it’s under threat because a lot of dumb stuff was done. Like we, we, we count 142 small launch vehicle companies in some state or form. And the absolute reality of it is, is that, you know, maybe in five, 10 years, the market will be there to support that.


But even before the pandemic, there was no market to support that really, we see the, there was a big enough of market opportunity for, for really two providers. And one of them being a rideshare and one of them being a dedicated anything more than that in there’s oversupply in the market. So that’s why I say a government coming in and buying a bunch of launches off a bunch of different, small launch vehicle companies to, you know, to, to save them.


It’s just not, it’s just not a good idea. Yeah. And I’ve heard a lot of that of, you know, just worries about funding and it’s a real threat I’m sure. Yeah. Well, I mean the V, the VC market is closed. You know, I have a lot to do with venture capital and in the U.S. and in New Zealand, and I’m an investor myself, and everybody is just looking after their portfolio companies.


So it’ll be, you know, nine to 12 months before pre-revenue companies. Uh, you know, get put back on the books. So, you know, anybody out there needs to make a runway last at least 12 months. Could you tell us about any differences between New Zealand and the U.S. with regard to how your workplaces have responded to the pandemic?


Yeah. So, um, uh, in, in New Zealand, uh, it was, it was a hard shutdown. So everybody worked from home where they could, um, you know, some of the design team and analysis team actually, uh, were probably more, more productive in some programs because they weren’t bugged by production. But, uh, you know, basically for for six weeks, it was a complete shutdown, you know.


But New Zealand is now at the point where, uh, you know, there are there’s one act of case in no new cases for a long time. So it’s really back to a hundred percent, um, effectually in California, you know, the, the storm shelter in place orders up in California there in Long Beach.


So we are working from home wherever we can. And we just built a brand-new factory up there. So I think it’s like a thousand square feet per person. Uh, so such social distancing is not too much of a problem in that factory. So, but, but we’ve split all the shifts in, in doing everything that the best health guidance has provided.


And then our launchpad in Kenya, NASA has been in a state of lockdown as well. So that has been a bit of a challenge, but. I think we’re starting to free up a bit up there as well, because we have that launch out of LC-2 coming in August. So the biggest challenge actually is, uh, getting people across from New Zealand to America and vice versa.


That’s, that’s probably the biggest challenge because at either end at either end this two-week quarantine period, so you have to kind of allow for two weeks in any schedule of just sitting in a hotel room. Yeah, that would be a challenge. Well, I’m glad things are going so well there in New Zealand. That’s that’s good. Hopefully we, we follow suit.


Um, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t, I’d say we’ve had a wonderful health outcome, but you know, as a, as an economic outcome and shutting everything down was pretty brutal. So we’ll see. We’ll see. I think someone’s gonna, there’s going to be a lot of really great, uh, PhDs and theses written on what is, what is the best approach?


Yeah. So we’ll see the economics of it all here. Yep. Kind of shifting gears. Um, you’ve been working on designs for interplanetary missions to Venus and beyond. Can you tell us a bit about that? Yeah, absolutely. So, um, it was, Oh gosh. When was that? Probably about a year ago now. Um, maybe slightly more. We actually funded a PhD student, Richard Hunter to go away and, uh, and see what you could do, uh, with a high energy photon SLO platform.


And then how far did you get it? It was just a little project. I want it to run in the background. I have a deep passion for Venus and I wanted to see if I could get to Venus. And, uh, and also, uh, at the same almost, you know, six months later, another Richard, Richard, French, who, uh, used some of that work to, to try and see what we get to the Moon.


And, um, so the two Richards really were able to optimize some pretty tricky trajectories and out popped a concept that yes, we in fact could get something to the Moon and we could get something to Venus and Mars. So it it’s almost, um, you know, perfect. But, uh, at the same time, NASA was working on a small space, graphical CAPSTONE to get into, to go to a system in orbit. And, um, we had, we’d been working on this project in the background around to ultimately try and get out to Venus, but equally when I can get to Venus, you can easily get to the Moon. So, uh, we developed the, a photon, uh, high energy photon satellite stage where, uh, it’s, it’s pretty cool. Cool maneuvering.


So we got up into low-Earth orbit to start with. And over a period of eight days, we do these ever-increasing effigy burns, where we end up in a very, very elliptical trajectory. And, uh, and then finally, you know, slingshot from the Earth each time. And, and we, we get, uh, enough energy to do one last burn to hit out onto a TLI.


And, um, we, uh, we hit out onto a trajectory to the Moon, which takes us about 1.3 million kilometers away. Then we do another little maneuver and it sends us back into the influence of the Moon’s gravitational field. And, uh, it’s, it’s, you know, there’s a couple of really wonderful things about this. As, you know, you can go to the Moon now for 10, 15 million dollars or even, you know, Venus or Mars.


So the most exciting thing, I think for me, this evolutionary platform with. We’ve developed is, you know, the access for planetary and lunar sciences is just ridiculously cheap now. So, you know, we’re, we’re hoping some really amazing discoveries are gonna gonna be made. And it’s, we’re just super excited with the first CAPSTONE mission launching in February to, to be able to be a part of it.


And just one final question, uh, where do you hope to see the aerospace industry in 50 years? 50 years? That’s a long way. I mean, we measure everything in Rocket Lab in days, not, not even weeks or months or years. Um, well, I, I hope we’re still living on Earth. That would be a, it would be a bad, a bad day if we had to live somewhere other than Earth.


Um, so I hope we don’t screw it, screw that up. But look, I think in, in, in 50 year’s time, if you, if you go back through the history and evolution of the human species, You know, we’re, we’re in a time of development that is it’s beyond its potential. Like the curve is vertical. The difference between 200 years ago, and 500 years ago is not much at all.


Um, and then even more you go back a thousand years ago and 10,000 years ago, once again, it’s almost no different and you keep going back and, and you know, the Delta between each of those kinds of major points of the human species is pretty flat. So the only way I can answer this as is kind of a mathematical deduction in the fact that if we stay on the same trajectory of kind of exponential development in, in 50 years time, man, we probably will be on another, in another solar system somewhere.


Yeah. It could be there’ll be some pretty great starter settlements. I mean, it’s a given, I mean, if that’s a given, if that hasn’t happened, then there will be an evolutionary regression if that hasn’t happened. So, you know, I, I would say that, that that’s a given, you know, the bigger hope I have is that the human spirit evolves with the pace of technology and we’re still not fighting each other over stupid things like fossilized dinosaurs in the ground, and whether people have got enough food to eat.


And those kinds of things, those things probably mean more to me than if we’re standing on Mars or not. Well put, well, thank you for your time today, Peter, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. Likewise, super fun. And that concludes this episode of the Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast. You can subscribe to this podcast and leave us a review on Podbean, Apple podcasts, and on Google Play.


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Space4U Podcast: Peter Beck – Founder of Rocket Lab