Rocket Lab engineers have started analysing data from yesterday's historic launch from the Mahia Peninsula that took the company to space but not able to complete its orbital mission.

Lift-off at 4.20pm was the first orbital-class rocket launched from a private launch site in the world

New Zealand became the 11th country with potential to launch cargo into space, joining superpowers and tech heavyweights. The Government hailed the lift-off as a major milestone for the country's space industry.

Rocket Lab rocket launching from Mahia Peninsula. Photo / Warren Buckland
Rocket Lab rocket launching from Mahia Peninsula. Photo / Warren Buckland

The rocket took three minutes to reach space with a "great" first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition and fairing separation.

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"We didn't quite reach orbit and we'll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our programme," said founder and chief executive Peter Beck.

During the next few weeks, Rocket Lab's engineers in Los Angeles and Auckland will work through the 25,000 data channels that were collected during the flight and results will be used to improve the vehicle's performance for two further tests.

The programme must make it to orbit and able to deploy small satellites to be commercially successful and while one expert said there would be some disappointment, Beck rated yesterday a big success.

"We're one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years. To get as far as we did on the first test flight doesn't often happen," he said.

"It was a beautiful mission to watch."

He gave the flight a "10 our of 10" and a big party was held last night at the company's operations base near Auckland Airport. It is registered in the United States where it also has operations.

Many test rockets don't make it off the launch pad or blow up in flight but Beck said his company had prepared meticulously.

There had been more ground testing than was usually done and it had paid off with yesterday's flight.

"New Zealand has genuinely joined the space industry for here on."

Kris Walsh, former project manager at United Launch Alliance and former director of all Nasa launch programmes overnight congratulated Beck and said it appeared the company had data to assess all aspects of the flight.

''Although it is disappointing that the launch didn't achieve orbit, the next actions of Rocket Lab are very important to watch, especially for Rocket Lab's current and future customers.''

The 17m tall rocket - with a silver fern on its nose and a US flag near its tail - lifted slowly from the launch pad before accelerating and was packing an estimated one million horsepower.

Forty-year-old Beck is a hands-on engineer, he was raised in Invercargill and founded Rocket Lab in 2006.

The Electron is made entirely of carbon-composite material and is designed to carry payloads of 225kg to an elliptical orbit and up to 150kg to a nominal 500km Sun-synchronous, low Earth orbit.

Three planned launches earlier this week were scrubbed.

Last year, the United States-based Space Foundation estimated the space economy was worth close to $400b a year but Rocket Lab - which has been hit by delays - approaches the small satellite market just as it is becoming increasingly crowded by other private players.

Economic Development Minister Simon Bridges has hailed the launch as the first visible sign of a space industry in New Zealand.

Rocket Lab and all New Zealanders could be proud of it, he said.

"New Zealand is now one of 11 countries able to launch satellites into space from their own territory and the first to launch from a fully private orbital launch range."

While it can draw on up to $25m of Government funding over five years, Rocket Lab's main backers include US companies Kholsa Ventures, Beesemer Venture Partners, Data Collective, Promus Ventures, Lockheed Martin and Stephen Tindall's K1W1.

The Budget has set aside $15m over the next four years to fund the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's part in New Zealand's burgeoning space programme.

Frame grab of the first successful launch of Rocket Lab from Mahia today. Photo / Twitter / @TheRocketGal
Frame grab of the first successful launch of Rocket Lab from Mahia today. Photo / Twitter / @TheRocketGal

Dr George Sowers, an independent consultant, former chief scientist and vice-president of United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, said before the launch that it was a sign of the vibrancy of the commercial space sector at the present time.

"It is another entrant into the small payload launch market which has been tough for commercial companies to succeed in. It certainly represents a first for New Zealand."

He said while Rocket Lab had some interesting technology, such as the electric pump-driven engine and embraced the state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies, the small payload launch market made it extremely difficult for commercial companies to make a profit.