Rocket Lab: Three Satellites & A Disco Ball

January 26, 2018
Iain MacLeod

Those of you who have attended my seminars know in what high regard I hold Rocket Lab, an amazing New Zealand company. Last weekend they launched their Electron Rocket successfully and deployed a payload of three satellites into low Earth orbit. Last year, they got the rocket up to low earth orbit level but had to kill the rocket when there was some technical hitch. On only their second attempt they have managed to go one better.

There was talk of a fourth object released and media were all atwitter as to whether it was something top secret. Turned out to be far less ‘James Bond’ and more ‘James Brown’ – dubbed a disco ball by some witty Journalist – a ‘humanity star’.

In typical fun Kiwi fashion, the Chief of the company, Peter Beck, decided to launch this ‘humanity satellite’ which will be (for a time) the third brightest object in your night sky, visible from all parts of the earth. It can be tracked online here, and for those of you not in New Zealand, you might be able to look up into the dark night sky right now and see this little piece of New Zealand hurtling from horizon to horizon above you.

This successful launch and deployment is amazing on so many levels, not just because it is homegrown high tech New Zealand. We join an exclusive club of eleven countries with a commercial space industry and a fully fledged space programme. It is the also the first launch from a privately owned launch site. It is also really cheap. This company is able to launch satellites into (low orbit) space for between $6,000,000.00 and $10,000,000.00 which is 1/10th of the price of its nearest competitor. There is talk of this creating a multi-billion dollar per year industry.

The genesis of this company began over a decade ago when a number of young engineering lads sat around what I imagine to be a pub table and someone said after I suspect at least three 8% alcohol content local craft beers: “Lads, I have a proposition for you. Why don’t we build and put a rocket into space?”. The others, perhaps after a few more local ales, decided to do it. And so the journey began.

Being young and poor, these guys had to think so far outside the square they were probably in a different room. They basically had to reinvent so many aspects of rocket engineering including, as I understand it, the engine. The Kiwi way of being creative when there’s not much money around is what has led directly to these guys now being able to build these rockets and get them into space very cheaply.

I also believe it reflects the New Zealand education system which is one where teamwork is promoted and an holistic education is valued over regurgitating numbers and facts. Aligned with that – and perhaps what makes us such a successful bunch – is that education seems to work well with a “can do” attitude that seems to lie deeply in our DNA. It was a little more than 12 months ago that the company opened its launch complex on the tip of the Mahia Peninsula in Hawke’s Bay. They now have six more of these 17-metre high “Electron” rockets in production and are expecting to be able to launch one a week by the end of the year. Not even my other hero, Elon Musk, comes close to these fellas.

Interestingly and in reflection of the tightness of the local labour market, their biggest issue was (and remains) recruiting skills. Rocket Lab leader Peter Beck is reported as saying that they don’t want rocket scientists (believe it or not) but all sorts of other trades with skills critical in manufacturing these rockets for regular space launch. If this sounds like you and you want to be part of NZ’s space industry, check out the Careers Page on the Rocket Lab website.

You can watch the entire launch on YouTube and if you got half the thrill that I did as they launched from possibly the most picturesque launch site in the world until the point of payload deployment, you’ll have a really good 8 minutes.

I often describe New Zealand as the little country that could, and this is yet another wonderful illustration of how far we have come as a country in the past 20-30 years.

I find it wonderful that the first NZ satellite that goes up was designed to make us all look up at this bright object whistling across the sky and to look beyond it into deep space; contemplating our place in the universe and, Peter Beck hopes, make us start thinking more about our home planet and how important it is to each and every one of us.

So while technically it isn’t really a disco ball, I love the fact that this first successful deployment was not just about making money, but about making a statement. I think it is the coolest thing that has happened in New Zealand since got my first pair of flared jeans when I was 8 years old.

I, for one, could not be prouder of what this says about New Zealanders and this little country that could.

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