To infinity and beyond

By Alan Perrott

Scientist, engineer and Rocketlab founder Peter Beck wants to make reaching space as easy as buying a new car. And with many powerful international backers, he just may achieve his mission, discovers Alan Perrott

Kiwi Rocket Scientist Peter Beck. Photo / Greg Bowker
Kiwi Rocket Scientist Peter Beck. Photo / Greg Bowker

As giant leaps or even small steps go, this was more an awkward waddle for mankind. Some were even laughing.

In one lane was a Dodge Viper, sleek, macho and fast even when still. In the other was what looked like a child's bike with a hose connecting a nozzle at the back to a diver's tank bolted to the frame. Draped over the top was 23-year-old Peter Beck, looking perfectly at ease with having superheated water only millimetres from his crotch.

Then the green light flashed and the Viper was roaring along Dunedin's Princes St as Beck scuttled his feet to get moving. He punched the button, a huge jet of steam erupted and then he was gone. Faster and faster he sped, until five seconds of mad thrust emptied his tank and he coasted across the line with the Viper coughing in his wake.

No one was laughing now.

Okay, aside from being a great yarn, that race back in 2000 illustrates how Beck, now 36, operates: under-promise, then, with a minimum of fuss, over-deliver.

And that's handy to remember because he makes no bones of his intentions: "We're going to change the world."

Beck wants to make reaching space as easy and as affordable as buying a new car.

Instead of being the exclusive domain of governments and billionaires, ordinary people will be able to put their own nano-satellite in space for up to five years if he has his way.

The thing is, when you consider everything Beck has done and, more importantly, the way he's gone about doing them, it doesn't sound too far-fetched.

His Parnell-based company Rocketlab has already fired New Zealand into a group of 14 nations capable of achieving orbit and attracted the admiration and support of some of the world's most powerful agencies along the way.

The next step in the grand plan is expected to be announced in the next few months. Though still highly confidential, it is apparently logical and counter-intuitive.

Make of that what you will, but changing the world almost seems inevitable for Beck.

His DNA practically demands it, with both sides of his family boasting long lines of tinkerers, thinkers and engineers.

Family time as a youngster was spent in the workshop behind his Invercargill home where his father built the one-metre reflector telescope that got him hooked on astronomy. It's also where Beck built his first bicycle from aluminum. And where, as a sixth former, he rebuilt a rusty old $300 Mini. Every nut, bolt and panel was replaced and a turbo-charger fitted: "It got to the point where it had an engine life of 300 hours before it needed a complete rebuild again. It was an absolute hand grenade ... but we were careful hoons. I just liked building things."

He soon discovered that combustion engines go only so fast - rockets are much faster.
His experiments started at school, and were mostly water-powered, until 1995 when he took up a tool and die-making apprenticeship at the local Fisher & Paykel factory and got full access to top-of-the-line machinery, tools and materials during his downtime. Of particular use was Trev in the engineering department who produced shipments of titanium labelled "Apprentice Training Project" whenever Beck needed them.

So lunchtimes and evenings were spent testing propellants and designs which were then fitted to various platforms. Aside from his rocket bike, there was the rocket scooter, and a jet pack he matched with a pair of roller blades.

"I know it might sound all very No. 8 wire sort of stuff, but really, it was the complete opposite. I always make judged decisions. Hours of work and thought goes into everything I do."

Workmates and the entire F&P board turned out for a private demonstration of the rocket bike in the build-up to his race.

"He's a fascinating guy," says former F&P engineer Bill Currie, who was one of the rocket bike spectators. "He's one of those autodidacts, he comes up with something then goes off and teaches himself whatever he needs to know to do it."

When Beck moved into product design, Currie remembers a cook-top burner he made that blazed like the sun but sounded like a rocket engine.

"I wonder if he was one of the people the GCSB was watching, I mean he was playing around with hydrogen peroxide, really powerful propellants, in his backyard, and he came back from one trip to the United States with a cruise missile engine. He told Customs it was aircraft parts. It sounds a bit mad, but he's always known what he's doing - he's bold, not stupid."

Beck is often mentioned alongside another intrepid Southlander, motor-cyclist Burt Munro, but he bridles at the comparison. Sure, they're both driven, but his approach is more bloodless and less seat-of-the-pants. None of his creations get pet names, they're made and discarded to make room for the next thing.

If he sounds like a one-man band, Beck has never worked in total isolation. From early on he started contacting experts within Nasa and companies like global aerospace network Lockheed Martin and gradually built up a long list of contacts.

Inevitably, domestic homeware wasn't going to satisfy his creative urges for long and in 2001 Beck got a job in Auckland at Industrial Research (IRL), the former Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), where he stayed until 2006, when his wife, Kerryn (another engineer; the couple have two children) spent a month working in the United States.

Beck travelled the country, meeting everyone he'd been swapping information with. "I realised that all these guys, the guys I'd looked up to for doing all this amazing stuff, were doing the same stuff I was and dealing with the same problems I was. The gap just wasn't there so I realised it was feasible to do something here, myself. I didn't want to be a small guy in a big machine designing tiny brackets for someone else's engines ..."

He came home and set up Rocketlab. "Right from the start," says Beck, "our only goal has been to lower space and make it accessible."

It quickly turned out that New Zealand is a great place to build rockets.

With no history in space, we have no pesky regulations dictating what can and can't be done. The door was wide open for a commercial spacefaring venture. On top of that, New Zealand is apparently ideally positioned for breaching the atmosphere.

All Beck needed was the money to pay for it. So he began doorknocking everyone with deep pockets and open minds.

Which led him to Mark Rocket - internet entrepreneur and the first New Zealander to book a flight on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

"I'd done some media interviews where I'd talked about wanting to see a private space industry emerge here," says Rocket, "and said I was looking for opportunities. Then Peter got in touch and presented his concept ... there was a fair amount of due diligence to begin with, but at the end of the day I had a good gut feeling and calculated he could deliver ..."

"That was a huge leap of faith," says Beck, "and we would have gone nowhere without it."

The pair set about assembling an expert team and after only three years of hard work were set to launch their first, multi-stage rocket, Atea 1.

Needing somewhere to launch it, Beck called the only person he knew of who had an old weapons testing range going spare. His hopes almost foundered when the woman who took the message wondered if he was a crank.

"Well, it did seem far-fetched," says Sir Michael Fay, "but a good idea all the same."

Never having heard of Peter Beck, Sir Michael flew to Auckland to see if he was for real. "I spent a few hours listening to him. I'm a layman but he explained it all in very simple terms I could understand. He has this ability to give you confidence that he can do these things. He sees the broad concept of what needs to be done, then he gets on and does it.

I believe he's a very special talent with a very special team."

Impressed, Sir Michael not only granted Rocketlab access to Great Mercury Island, he offered his house, helicopter, boat and barge, and flew in a chef to handle the catering.

The launch had to be huge so Beck secured live coverage from TV3 on condition the footage was available internationally. They needed the whole world to know what they were doing.

Footage of the launch on November 30, 2009 is still available on the TV3 website and for all the geekery it reeks of Kiwiana - from the tin shed, accents, and Maori blessing to Paul Holmes sitting on a hill in a sheep paddock.

Everything was under strain. Take the rocket's fuel tank: it was pressurised to 1000 psi, just 1psi under the point where it would explode. With so much scope for failure, there was little surprise when a part connecting the fuel line to the rocket froze, effectively anchoring it to the ground.

No worries. After a few phone calls, a replacement part was located at Mercury Bay Diesel and the helicopter set off to pick it up.

"Yeah, it's quite funny to be part of a bit of history," says the company's owner, Mike Hills. "I've told a few people about it and we have a laugh when it comes on the television. But I did think, when they came in and dropped off 10 bucks to pay for it, that on the day the part was probably worth a million dollars to them. You know, supply and demand, but we let it go ..."

With order restored, Beck reached his big moment. No, not his self-conscious, pre-launch speech - "in the tradition of great New Zealand explorers, New Zealand we are going for space ..." - it's the exultant "you f***ing beauty" when he exits ground control to see his dream fly.

Beck's phone was ringing before Atea 1 was out of sight.

"That was a huge defining moment, life-changing really. There are other companies doing this stuff that are all glossy with videos and all the rest of it, but we're not like that. We do it, then talk about it, and now we had the credibility to talk. I mean that was no bog-standard rocket we launched, it pushed boundaries, and for a lot of people in the United States, and to see that was really refreshing.

There are Powerpoint companies over there that don't do anything, they just talk about doing things, so for us that launch meant we could go to whole other levels."

Those levels included meeting the scientists who built the rockets that powered Saturn Vs and Space Shuttles, and everyone wanted to know what was next. This was old-school rocketry, the way they'd worked in the 60s to reach the moon, so the scientists were more than receptive to his ideas.

For example, he'd been watching a television report about problems US troops were having in Iraq and Afghanistan, when an idea came to him in the same place they always do - the shower. The result, a handheld rocket drone called Instant Eyes, has already been trialled by Nato and the US military.

He's also created new thermal protection material for the Patriot missile system and a emergency drone parachute. All very Boy's Own, but they didn't sit well with his original backer, Mark Rocket, who blanched at the growing military connection, so he accepted Beck's offer to buy him out.

From Beck's point of view, such projects are chances to learn - Instant Eyes taught him much about guidance, control and avionics, all of which will be fed back into his real goal - and, let's face it, they're where the money is.

Which doesn't mean there's no room for fun. His team is also helping Australian Rosco McGlashan chase his dream of breaking the 1000mph barrier and setting a new land-speed record.

Their services, says Beck, are "pro bono ... we go back a long way".

"I was in America," says McGlashan, "and had gone a long way down the track when the Homeland Security thing and the financial collapse hit. Suddenly no one was allowed to talk to foreign aliens about rockets. So I thought 'stuff it', went home and turned to the cleverest brain I know, Peter Beck."

Rocketlab has designed an enormous hybrid rocket (one powered by solid and liquid fuel) instead of the usual multi-engined rocket cars and Beck reckons it will go like a bomb.

All McGlashan needs is a sponsor to pay for its construction.

"It'll work," he says. "With Peter on board, I've got total confidence in that. He's the only guy I know who can crunch the numbers and then do something like this. What he's done on the bones of his arse with bugger-all support, people have no idea. They really don't."

The money situation has improved since he caught the eye of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), a mega-budgeted American agency created in 1958 as a response to the Soviet's Sputnik satellite. Its mission is to invent everything first so they are never surprised again, a strategy that's led to the internet, GPS, stealth technology and Google Maps.

"They are the cream of the cream." says Beck. "They're not interested in incremental change, they do game changers, and for an organisation like that to fund a tiny foreign company like ours, well, that should be impossible."

They're after one of Beck's ideas, a rocket fuel that behaves as solid and liquid.

Each state has pros and cons, and though many have tried, Rocketlab has cracked a way of combining them. Chemistry is a long way from rocketry, but, as ever, he set about learning what he needed to until he found an answer.

The resulting Atea 2 was launched on November 13, 2012, and this time the audience that gathered in that paddock on Great Mercury Island was of a level never before seen before in this country, including the top brass of Nasa, Darpa and sundry monstrous corporations.

The rocket was modelled on the Sidewinder missile because, says Beck, "We wanted the most disruptive demonstration possible, we took the most famous missile in the world and kicked its arse."

Their fuel not only flew it further than ever, it enabled them to do the previously impossible - they throttled it back and then shut it down while it was still in flight.

When recovered it had a little gas left in the tank so they could prove what they'd done.

Yet, such unqualified success isn't enough for Beck. And although he's clearly excited about his new mysterious project(which he expects to announce next month), you just know that even if it exceeds his wildest imaginings, he'll probably grin for a few minutes, then shrug and get back to work.

"Well, you know, everything's gone fine so far and while we do celebrate, there's no 'yee-ha' culture here. The job's not done, not by a long way. But the team here is the best - it's not enough for them to just be good, they make honey out of shit and put in huge, huge hours. We all do, because we have to. I know that in the past month I've missed my birthday, wedding anniversary and my daughter's first birthday and that's terrible. I'm so lucky to have an understanding, supportive wife because while that sort of commitment probably isn't sustainable, it is important.

"Just give us another couple of years, and if we've changed the world, then I'll see where I'm at. Until then, as [Ernest] Rutherford said, 'we don't have the money so we have to keep thinking'."

- NZ Herald

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