One morning in early May, 80 kilometres above the surface of the Earth, the first stage of a rocket carrying 34 satellites separated, turned itself around using tiny thrusters, and began to fall. Far below, almost 300 kilometres off the East Coast of New Zealand, a helicopter the size of a bus was waiting to catch it.
Watching from Rocket Lab’s operational base, inside the old Avanti bike factory in South Auckland, were the firm’s staff. The control room is a row of computers behind a glass wall that looks like a cross between an internet cafe and a nightclub, and the screens are dominated with charts, waveforms and incomprehensible indicators. On the wall is a livestream of the launch pad at Māhia.
At 13 kilometres above the Earth, the rocket released a small parachute to begin braking its descent. At six kilometres, the main parachute deployed, slowing its fall to just 36 kilometres per hour. The helicopter moved in, a long hooked catchline dangling below. Closer, closer, and then—against a backdrop of gloomy clouds—success.
In South Auckland, the staff cheered and clapped—momentarily. After detecting an unexpected shift in weight, the pilot of the modified Sikorsky S-92 released the stage, which drifted down into the ocean. Far above, the satellites were released to begin their lonely orbits.
The mission, There and Back Again, was a remarkable feat of engineering. A rocket launched from Māhia, ultimately reaching speeds of more than 28,000 kilometres per hour, had been snatched out of the sky. If the helicopter had kept the stage, it would have been flown back to land and recycled, making Electron a reusable rocket. (Instead, the stage was later picked up by boat.)
Just getting the rocket to space requires the perfect execution of what chief executive Peter Beck calls a “supersonic ballet”. There are tens of thousands of different components in the Electron rocket, the failure of any of which would kill the mission. There are only brief intervals—launch windows—where the weather is right, the airspace is empty, the ocean below is clear of ships, and there is a break in the celestial traffic of satellites which circle the Earth.
“Absolutely everything needs to line up perfectly—the helicopter, the rocket, the weather, the pilots, the tracking systems,” says Beck. “I would have been happy if we’d simply sighted the stage from the helicopter, but to actually catch it on the first attempt was incredible.”
One of the features of mission control is a big red button, a kill switch that can cancel the launch almost 600 kilometres away at the pad. For most of Rocket Lab’s history, vice-president of launch Shaun D’Mello has had his finger on the trigger—managing his first launch at just 24. “We basically have eight minutes of perfection that we’ve got to hit every launch and everyone in the control room, everyone company-wide that has a part to play in a launch, is repeatedly told that every single move counts, every review counts, every screw that you tighten counts,” he says. “You are too saturated with information to feel the pressure. The stakes are very high. There is no margin for error.”
Deeper inside the South Auckland facility is the factory floor. Huge flags hang from the roof—representing New Zealand and the United States, where Rocket Lab has its corporate headquarters. Technicians move about in denim and company t-shirts, which today are themed for Pride Month. Somewhere a radio is playing Sting and the Police. They could be building anything, were it not for the bodies of the rockets themselves which dominate the centre of the room. They enter through the huge garage doors as tubes and are cut to size by a robot named Rosie. The factory’s output currently sits around one rocket a month, but they could be making one every three days.
“It’s a pretty lean, mean machine,” says D’Mello.
“So what can go wrong is everything, basically. You could lose a vehicle, you could lose a payload—you could lose the launch site in a very severe event. Everything is miniaturised. It’s like shrinking a smartwatch down to the size of your fingernail.”
Rocket Lab is what you might call a budget-friendly space courier. Its business model is delivering satellites into low Earth orbit—anywhere from 180 to 1000 kilometres above the ground—at a fraction of the cost of the big American outfits such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. (The average launch costs about a quarter of Rocket Lab’s competitors.) Unlike satellites in geostationary orbit, which appear to hang motionless above, satellites in low Earth orbit do not have to follow the equator, meaning there are many more options when it comes to their trajectory around the Earth—and more commercial opportunities to put them there.
For production director Jamie France, a former engineer with Team New Zealand, Rocket Lab’s streamlined design philosophy was made possible by the firm’s lack of experience. “As we were building Electron, we didn’t have 50 years of aerospace heritage like our American competitors do. So we pretty much had to learn everything the hard way. We couldn’t look to the past. When we didn’t know how to do something, we had to ask, ‘Well, how would we do it?’ And a lot of the time that was wrong—we blew a lot of shit up initially.”
Rocket Lab’s competitors, says France, build rockets the same way they always have—on huge production lines in colossal North American factories like the Boeing facility. Rocket Lab’s workshop can be seen in its entirety from the boardroom above the factory floor. The company’s Rutherford engine is 3D-printed—the only one of its kind—and the rockets are made of a proprietary composite, like carbon-fibre race boats, “because that’s the way we know how to do it. And it turns out that way’s a lot faster and a lot cheaper.”
There are very obvious differences between a yacht—even the futuristic ones that dominate the America’s Cup today—and a rocket. The temperature of the fuel tank carrying 11 tonnes of liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene sits around minus 200 degrees Celsius, says France, right next to an engine which emits a 1500-degree exhaust plume. Atmospheric friction threatens to rattle the craft into a heap of disjointed components. The heat warps, stretches and contracts the rocket—the shell of which is barely the thickness of a credit card.
“Then you’ve got the vacuum of space—things might just blow apart because they’ve got no atmospheric pressure on them any more,” says France. “It’s such a hand-assembled vehicle that you only need one person to have a bad day and everybody’s work is thrown in the bin, live on YouTube in front of a hundred thousand people.”
Having delivered close to 150 satellites to low Earth orbit in 26 successful launches, Rocket Lab’s budget approach clearly works—and now its presence is spawning a whole ecosystem of space-tech start-ups in New Zealand. One of them is Astrix Astronautics, which is developing a more efficient solar-power system for satellites.
When Astrix’s system reaches space, it uses inflatable tubes and gas to deploy a large surface covered in solar panels, a lightweight alternative to existing satellite power sources. In theory, at least. The company, founded by three students from the University of Auckland, had never tested it in space. They raised $500,000 to take part in Rocket Lab’s There and Back Again mission; they’d make the prototype and Rocket Lab would carry it for free.
Shortly after the Electron rocket’s final stage arrived in orbit, video fed back to Earth showed a successful deployment. Like a pop-up tent, or the wings of a giant fish, the solar panels folded out into space, where they will remain in orbit for the next two years. Fia Jones, 21-year-old co-founder and chief executive of Astrix, says the launch, and the video footage of success, “flipped a switch in terms of customers”.
“We’re now looking at launching an additional eight systems in the next 24 months,” says Jones.
Access to Rocket Lab’s Auckland base also meant Astrix could test its prototype on Earth. The factory has chambers—made out of an old milk vat—which simulate conditions in space, as well as vibration testing machines, and a disassembled engine with which to run experiments.
“Rocket Lab had the only vacuum chamber that was large enough to test our deployment system here on Earth before putting it into space,” says Jones. “That equipment is so expensive and if you are trying to start with a very basic demo, we can’t afford to deploy all of that capital on facilities of our own. That let us overcome a huge barrier.”
Jones hopes that Astrix can bring the price of components down in much the same way Rocket Lab has made launches affordable for smaller start-ups. And the more cheaply satellites can be made, the more satellites Rocket Lab will be able to launch.
Now, says Jones, universities in New Zealand are considering space careers as a viable option for students. Satellite and rocket-building programmes are being established in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. “It’s becoming a large community and ecosystem and we’re seeing more people go into aerospace. All of that stems from Rocket Lab being set up here.”
A 2019 report estimated New Zealand’s space industry to be worth around $1.7 billion, while employing 12,000 people directly and indirectly—about 600 of those at Rocket Lab.
Internationally, the firm is part of some of the most significant space programmes of the modern era: the James Webb Telescope, the International Space Station resupply missions, the Mars Ingenuity helicopter. In 2021, Rocket Lab technology could be found on more than a third of all launches globally. Beck says he wants the firm’s logo on every craft sent to space.
Why launch rockets from the bottom of the Earth, thousands of kilometres away from the technological and industrial hubs of the planet? For exactly that reason. After arriving in New Zealand from his native Australia, Shaun D’Mello was given the keys to a rental car and told to find a spot with very specific characteristics.
“We were very small at the time so everyone wore different hats. I helped do anything and everything. We got to a point where we roughly knew what the rocket was going to look like, but we had no idea where we were going to launch it from. So Pete literally gave me the keys and just said, ‘Go figure it out, go up and down the coast, go up and down the South Island’.
“It was great because I had never actually seen a lot of New Zealand myself. But there was a lot of time spent trying to figure this one out, a lot of people to meet, a lot of cups of tea.”
It was critical to get right. When things go bad on a rocket, it either falls out of the sky and comes back down to Earth, or it blows up halfway to space, scattering tiny debris. And so the only feasible way to launch a rocket safely is over water or uninhabited land.
“When you think about all your options globally, what you really want is an island in the middle of the ocean. Then you generally want to be launching east, because that is the direction the Earth rotates, so you have a bit of a free push.
“Then you have to consider air traffic. When you think of the main traffic routes around the world, there are not many of them south of New Zealand, and so you don’t have to close down airspace to open a window to launch. There is also much less marine traffic. When you consider all of those factors, somewhere like Māhia starts to seem like an obvious place.”
In 2017, the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act came into force, requiring anyone launching something into space from New Zealand to have a licence from the newly established New Zealand Space Agency, which is part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). The legislation also ensures New Zealand stays in line with international treaty obligations (which are mostly about preventing the use of nuclear weapons, and blocking construction on the moon).
Pozza says the increasing commercialisation of space will also necessitate a kind of traffic management—a set of guidelines that prevents a traffic jam in the stars. Historically, it was only governments that had the capital to get a vehicle to space, says Pozza, but the success of firms like Rocket Lab means it is now far more viable for individuals to put something in the sky.
And were a satellite launched from Māhia to crash down in Times Square, or were satellites used to aim a nuclear warhead, we’d have a problem.
“If a satellite just fell from orbit and then didn’t burn up completely and fell into someone’s garden,” says Pozza, “then the launching state, New Zealand, would be liable for the damage.”
International treaties don’t do much to prevent the de facto militarisation of space; militaries can and do lease commercial satellites for any number of purposes. And there’s a complicating factor: military and civilian purposes often go hand in hand.
Many of the technologies used in our daily lives began as defence or military programmes. The first weather satellite was a military invention. So was the internet.
“GPS itself was created by the US Air Force—now Space Force—and is still operated by the organisation today,” says Beck, “so every time you order an Uber or use Google Maps, you’re using defence technology.”
These technologies are also used at a state level in emergency response and civil defence. “Earth observation satellites have defence uses, but are also used for environmental monitoring, disaster response to bushfires, earthquakes and floods, resource planning, and so much more,” says Beck.
In other words, satellites don’t facilitate Dr Evil-style lasers on the moon, but everyday technology like Tinder. Still, New Zealand’s space regulatory regime doesn’t allow just anything to be sent into space.
Every satellite launched from New Zealand goes through a governmental approval process under the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act. The process includes espionage agencies like the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau, as well as MBIE, and forbids the launch of weapons or satellites that contribute to nuclear programmes, are intended to destroy systems on Earth or other spacecraft, or enable serious and irreversible harm to the environment.
Following the success of There and Back Again, Rocket Lab’s 26th launch of its Electron rocket, the firm has set its sights further afield. As this issue went to print, the firm was preparing to launch NASA’s CAPSTONE CubeSat, a spacecraft the size of a microwave oven, to the moon. The satellite will test a space navigation system and scope out an orbital path around the moon for a future space station.
CAPSTONE is a crucial step for Artemis, NASA’s programme to return humans to the moon before 2025. NASA plans to land the first woman and person of colour there, and establish a long-term presence in preparation for an attempt on Mars.
According to D’Mello, the CAPSTONE mission will be “like swinging a golf club and aiming for a hole-in-one—only almost 400,000 kilometres away”.