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Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

Peter Beck: The man with the one million-horsepower rocket

• This article originally appeared September 24 and has been resurfaced after the news Peter Beck was named the EY Entrepreneur of the Year.

It's T minus three months for Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck.

Some time before the end of the year, the result of a lifetime of dreaming, a decade's dedicated work and tens of millions of dollars of investment capital will be launched from a remote part of the East Coast.

The most powerful machine to fly from this country will be headed for orbit.

READ MORE:Rocket Lab's kill switch for $7m machine

"We're trying to do something that is tremendously challenging," says the perpetually youthful looking Beck.

Given that the kerosene is about to hit the turbo pump in a live launch, he seems remarkably relaxed.

"I'm pleased that I don't show it but there's an enormous amount of stress not just on me, but on the entire company right now because every single person in this company is critical to mission success. Every person in this company can make this a wild success or a dismal failure - that's the nature of the game."

He's not a big sleeper, but he's not getting any less than usual.

"This is what I want to do with my life - it's not that I feel I get sick of this and I want to go and sit on the beach."

On an as-yet undisclosed date, he says the one million-horsepower Electron rocket will be test fired from the Mahia Peninsula launch site, aimed for a low Earth orbit.

Watch: Taking New Zealand to the stars

Video

Rockets are not generally rated in horsepower, but for comparison, a Toyota Corolla has about 160hp and a distant cousin of the Electron, the Saturn V which launched men to the moon, had more than 30 million hp.

The Rocket Lab launch will be the first of three test missions. If successful, it will lead to commercial flights next year, propelling New Zealand into a unique place in the space industry by launching the first commercial orbital missions from a private pad.

In the lead-up to liftoff, Rocket Lab base near Auckland airport is bulging at the seams and buzzing with activity. Scientists, engineers and technicians hover over the fuselages of three test rockets in varying stages of completion, lying horizontal in the large hangar-style workshop .

"Everybody is busting their guts," says Beck, who takes Sunday mornings off to spend with his family.

The 39-year-old is married with two children, but that part of his life is off limits.

Graphic / NZ Herald
Graphic / NZ Herald

"I don't like talking about my wife and kids - it gets out in the public domain and they've got friends."

He does add, though, that his son has something in common with his father at a young age.

"He wants to be a rocket scientist."

Beck grew up in Invercargill, born into a family who loved machines. While at high school, he pulled an old Mini apart and rebuilt it part by part, hotting it up with a turbocharger. But even then, his goal was to build rockets.

A toolmaking apprenticeship at Fisher & Paykel gave him the hands-on engineering skills and access to top of the line machinery and materials after hours.

In 2001 he got a job in Auckland at Industrial Research (now Callaghan Innovation) which had its base at Balfour St in Parnell and continued working on his passion - rockets.

He set up Rocket Lab in 2006 and it was at IRL that he met Sir Stephen Tindall, who through K1W1 Ltd and other vehicles, has invested over $150m into a large number of start-up and early-stage businesses.

Every person in this company can make this a wild success or a dismal failure - that's the nature of the game.

Tindall says: "The first time I met him was when I popped my head around the door on the way from visiting (biofuel startup) LanzaTech and I introduced myself. He was very generous with his time and showed us all around."

Tindall says he and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla had invested in LanzaTech and they then invested in Rocket Lab as well.

"The things that excited us the most was, number one, Peter, who was a consummate rocket scientist - he'd really done his apprenticeship and had spent a lot of time on this and become a world expert. He has a proven record in the industry and he's embraced the latest technology and gone beyond that with his own R&D and come up with something that is really the 787 of space."

Tindall says he also got good feedback from Sir Michael Fay, on whose Great Mercury Island Beck test fired the first multi-stage rocket in 2009.

"The other thing that appealed to us was the quality of the Phd's that he's been able to recruit from around the world, dropping amazing jobs often with higher salaries to follow their dream to get this thing up and running."

K1W1 Ltd has about 3.8 per cent of Rocket Lab (Beck won't discuss his stake), which is now a US registered company, with its legal offices located in a Los Angeles complex named after aerospace dreamer Howard Hughes.

An 18 metre long Rocket Lab Electron rocket.
An 18 metre long Rocket Lab Electron rocket.

The New Zealand government has invested $25m over five years but there is massive Silicon Valley funding and backing from Lockheed Martin.

Like LanzaTech, which migrated to Chicago, Tindall says he can understand why Rocket Lab is legally a US company.

"I think you can technically say that, without that type of backing there's no way they would have got all the approvals that they needed from the US. Secondly, while there might be US ownership, all the R&D and the exciting stuff happens down here in New Zealand," says Tindall.

"With all my investments, I look at them and think how much can it contribute to the economy and the employment of New Zealanders - this one really ticked all the boxes."

Rocket Lab's Auckland base is just off a road named in honour of New Zealand's (and arguably the world's) first powered aircraft inventor - Richard Pearse - and security is stringent; cameras or any digital devices must be left in safe storage at reception.

We're building up to commercial flights, not up to this one launch - the things that excite me are when we enable customers to do something very cool.

The company has invested heavily in its own intellectual property and although they are not designed to deliver weapons, in the wrong hands, large rockets capable of travelling thousands of kilometres are a security threat and US regulators who have licensed the programme every step of the way are particularly sensitive.

Beck is at pains to stress that this year's planned launch is just another step in a long, painstaking programme in addition to hundreds of testbed trials where engines are fired on the ground .

"The real prize here is when we start flying commercially. We're building up to commercial flights, not up to this one launch - the things that excite me are when we enable customers to do something very cool," he says.

"You can test a lot of things on the ground but there are some things you can't test."

The Rocket Lab programme has already encountered delays, one of them caused by an unsuccessful attempt at establishing a launch site on Banks Peninsula, near Christchurch.

While the pressure to launch is growing, Beck says the Electron is not going anywhere until it's ready and conditions are right.

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

"There's not a single person on that team who is going to go for launch if their system is not perfect."

If anything goes wrong with space travel and rockets, it tends to go very wrong.

"There's no margin, no margin in the payload, in the performance - no margin in anything."

Earlier this month, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket exploded on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida, delivering a blow to the private space programme of tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Beck points out that the SpaceX programme is different and in many ways more difficult than his own

"It's just the business, a lot of these peoples are friends and colleagues and you feel for them, you feel for their losses," he says.

We don't think of ourselves as space on a budget, we're almost the opposite of that, we're a premium ride.

"It comes with some risk and if you truly want to make big disruption in an industry then that's what's required."

Rocket Lab aims to be small and nimble in the commercial launch business, which last year was estimated at being worth $9 billion. High frequency Electron launches for less than US$5m apiece compare to others valued at closer to $200m, which come with years-long waiting times.

But it's not cut-rate space, says Beck.

"We don't think of ourselves as space on a budget, we're almost the opposite of that, we're a premium ride. We take a customer who would normally be ride sharing, or strapped onto the side of a big rocket, to a very dedicated orbit, dedicated time frame."

Although he clams up when things get personal, it's hard to stop the ebullient inventor on the subjects he loves: different types of orbit (the Electron goes into a low earth orbit, so it needs to travel at 25 times the speed of sound to avoid falling to earth) and the future of satellites.

Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck. Photo / Geoff Dale
Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck. Photo / Geoff Dale

"A satellite that was the size of a car is now the size of a refrigerator, next year it's probably going to be the size of a microwave. Now, why that's important to you, is that it enables satellite companies to put up infrastructure in space at an unprecedented cost, and an unprecedented frequency - provided they can get them launched of course."

While space is getting more crowded and will need more regulation, he says there's plenty of room up there for more satellites (he found the movie Gravity "annoyingly inaccurate" in the way it handled a space debris calamity).

Tindall says Beck has the knack of making the language of rocket science understandable for most people, most importantly investors.

"We've invested in a lot of companies now with dedicated scientists who have the nous in the lab but often can't translate that back through investor relations and speak in terms that others can understand."

Beck knows a soundbite too.

"It's been a long journey - it's been a wild ride."

- NZ Herald

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