Star Wars-generation takes flight in the Southern Hemisphere

By Lisa Bradley

Peter Beck and Mark Rocket aim to make history by launching the first privately constructed rocket from the southern hemisphere. Photo / Doug Sherring
Peter Beck and Mark Rocket aim to make history by launching the first privately constructed rocket from the southern hemisphere. Photo / Doug Sherring

If Wellingtonian Clare Keenan has her way, her grandmother's ashes will shoot into space later this month, enclosed in New Zealand's first sub-orbital rocket.

Her dream, to honour her gran's memory with a rocket launch, will be made possible by a couple of Kiwi rocket geeks who, against all odds, are ready to blast off.

The pair, Christchurch space lover and aptly named Mark Rocket, and self-professed Auckland science geek Peter Beck, dreamed up the space-race venture when they met three years ago.

They formed Kiwi-based aerospace company Rocket Lab, aiming to make history on November 30 by launching the first privately constructed rocket from the southern hemisphere. And they're selling space through Trade Me and eBay - space on board, that is.

Keenan wasted no time in putting an opening bid on Trade Me for $3000 and can think of no better way to celebrate the life of her grandmother Susanna Lizamore, 84, who died earlier this year, than sending some of her ashes along for the ride.

"She was such an adventurous lady," says Keenan, "I know she'd like to have given this a go."

If successful, Lizamore's ashes will blast off with more than 22,700 messages to deceased family members from people around the world, collected by Houston aerospace company Spaces Services and forwarded to New Zealand.

Beck and Rocket set up Rocket Lab after discovering their individual interests were a marriage made in space.

Rocket, 39, is fascinated by space technology and travel and was the first New Zealander to confirm and book on the Virgin Galactic flight bound for space in 2010/11.

A child of the Star Wars generation, Rocket - the primary funder of Rocket Lab - changed his surname by deed poll. You'll have a tough time getting him to confess his original name.

"It's been Rocket for as long as I remember."

Beck, 32, has always been a man with rockets on his mind. "I'm proud to be called a geek. Geeks make the best contributions to our planet."

The award-winning scientist and engineer, who was last year presented with the Royal Society of New Zealand's Cooper Medal, began his career in Fisher and Paykel's design office in Dunedin before moving to developing smart materials and structures for Industrial Research Limited.

In his early 20s, Beck designed, and rode a rocket-propelled bike which delighted the crowds at Dunedin's Festival of Speed by racing from 0 to 140km/h.

A year later he was at it again, this time making a rocket pack - but with less success.

"The idea was to wear rollerblades and be pushed along by the pack. I went and bought some but didn't know how to use them," he says.

"It didn't end well because I couldn't use the blades - a more skilled rollerblader would have achieved more velocity I'm sure."

School mate Daniel Blaine remembers Beck souping-up a Mini as a 17-year-old. Egged on by his mocking school mates Beck turned the little car into a turbo-charged "work of art".

And Blaine recalls Beck developing a state-of-the-art super-light mountain bike for a race. Beck, who had never raced before, collapsed at the finish line, and a truck accidentally backed over his bike.

Beck says his days of "putting a leg each side of a rocket are over", particularly now he is married to Kerryn, 32, and has a 6-month-old son, William. However, Kerryn says she doesn't mind her husband's rocket obsession.

"He was into hovercrafts for a while, but it always goes back to rockets. Always rockets."

It was while Kerryn, also an engineer, was working overseas on and off for three years from 2002 that Beck stepped up his fascination.

When visiting his wife in the United States Beck spent his days knocking on the doors of aerospace gurus.

He was not always successful.

Beck was once asked to leave by a guard with a machine gun at Edwards Airforce Base - "the holy ground of rockets" - in California.

"It was very exciting for me being there. I was taking photographs at the gate but met with resistance. I was lucky to get out of there without being detained," he says.

"We've a lot to thank the Kiwi accent for: It can get you out of a tight spot."

In the end, tenacity and the New Zealand twang won through. Beck met with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) scientists and the Virgin Galactic crew and even got to "crawl over" a private collection of rocket equipment.

Those meetings convinced Beck his ideas were not far from what was being developed by the masters.

New Zealand is the ideal place to set up a space industry because it can be done more cheaply, he says. And there is scope for space science in the southern hemisphere in areas such as climate change measurement, micro gravity and solar physics.

But Beck knows getting a foot in the door won't be easy with the space industry being built on heritage and reputation.

"You have to do something to prove yourself. You have to launch a rocket, and so I thought 'we'll just do it'."

Enter internet entrepreneur Mark Rocket. While the budget for New Zealand's space hope is "considerably" less than the billions of dollars spent to blast off into space in the US, Rocket's financial input has breathed life into the project.

But it still hasn't been easy. A major obstacle has been arms restrictions which stopped the company buying parts from the US.

"In the end we had to develop our own components," says Beck.

"Now we're taking inquiries from US companies that want to buy those components."

Rocket says many international space companies fold in their infancy.

"But three years after we got the company going, we're ready to launch. It's quite an accomplishment to get there," he says. "It's literally out of this world".

He and Beck are proud of their baby rocket, Atea-1. Standing at 6m - "small is beautiful when it comes to rockets" - the rocket uses hybrid fuel technology and has caught the eye of international players including American universities and companies.

"Ordinary solid fuel has highly toxic emissions. All hybrids we can put under our arm and take anywhere in the world without having to cut through red tape," says Beck.

"Hopefully we are about to start something significant. It's an opportunity for the world to view us differently - not just for sheep and cows."

The development of the Kiwi rocket is being closely followed on science-based websites and has even stirred Aussie jealously across the ditch.

Aussie blog site RustyLime bemoan ed the fact Kiwis punch above their weight in innovation with an article headed "Dammit Australia! New Zealand beats us unto space".

Most significantly for Rocket Lab, however, is the number of international space companies, including Nasa, watching developments because a successful launch could turn into contracts - and one day harness New Zealand's place as a southern hemisphere leader in space technology.

Greg Zilliac, an aero-physics engineer at the Nasa Research Center in California, has been in regular contact with the two Kiwi rocket enthusiasts, and describes Beck and Rocket's project as a significant accomplishment.

A successful launch would seize the attention of the space industry and academia worldwide, Zilliac says.

But he warns that success is not guaranteed.

"Even so, if it gets off of the pad, it is something to take pride in. If I were a betting man, I'd bet on the third launch as the one that will meet all expectations."

Similar interest is stirred at home with scientists and rocket enthusiasts taking an interest including the New Zealand Rocketry Association.

"I'm excited as a tornado in a trailer park about this launch," says one association member Phil Vukovich.

It's a sentiment shared by one of New Zealand's richest men, Sir Michael Fay, who has offered free use of Great Mercury Island - reported to carry a $20,000-per-day hire charge - as a launching pad.

Sir Michael says he was so impressed by the fuel and carbon fibre construction of Atea-1 he was happy to help. Not only that, he plans to muck in where he can and is offering up his farm boat to deliver the rocket the 35km from Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula.

"This has been done on the smell of an oily rag and with a lot of compassion and commitment," Fay says. "Every aspect of this is something new and innovative. I don't know its business potential, I just know they deserve all the help they can get. I can't think of another bunch of guys I'd rather help."

The launch is planned for 6am on November 30, weather permitting. The flight is expected to take around 30 minutes before the rocket arcs back to Earth and lands in the Pacific Ocean, where it will be retrieved.

Sir Michael says there won't be anywhere else he'd rather be on that day. He will be joined by about 40 others including the successful payload bidders. Keenan hopes to be among them, watching as her grandmother's ashes leave New Zealand soil for space.

"It could go wrong," she says, "But I know my grandmother would still have taken a punt."

Beck shares that spirit."It's been quite a quest," he says, "either way on launch day, there will be champagne."

Atea-1

Payload: 2kg
Wet weight: 60kg
Height: 6m
Thrust: 83,000 Ns (3200 horsepower equivalent)
Fuel: Polymer and nitrous oxide hybrid
Maximum acceleration: 16G
Terminal velocity: Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound)
Maximum altitude: 120km
Flight time: 30-40 minutes
Engine burn time: 12-15 seconds

ON THE ROAD TO BLAST OFF

While we might not have the multi-billion budgets that Nasa's rocket builders enjoy, Kiwis nevertheless have an unstoppable fascination with blasting things skyward.

Dr Martin Van Tiel, owner of Van Tiel Pyrotechnics that put on the millennium fireworks display in Auckland, started the unofficial mini space race four years ago by setting a rocket-altitude record of 4480m.

The rocket, Ozone, which stood 2.75m tall, was powered by a rocket motor designed and made by Van Tiel. It broke the sound barrier for several seconds and was brought back to Earth by parachute.

Van Tiel's success prompted Phil Vukovich to get in on the action.

"I was aiming to stimulate a bit of competition and get things moving," he says.

In August last year, and with many hours invested in the task, Vukovich launched a 2.4m long rocket using a sugar propellent. He says his rocket reached around 8377m, knocking out Van Tiel's record.

There are also rumours of two high school students designing a rocket, and Van Tiel, who has a physics and chemistry background, is planning a new rocket capable of leaving Vukovich's record for dead.

Van Tiel and Vukovich are members of the New Zealand Rocketry Association that has about 30 members and a launching pad at Taupiri.

The men say they are following the Atea-1 launch keenly.

Van Tiel describes the launch of a self-made rocket as " exhilarating".

"You experience a lot of butterflies before you hit the button."

He has thought long and hard about what motivates people to launch a rocket.

"It's the age old fascination with harnessing and controlling power. There you go. That's it in a nutshell."

- Herald on Sunday

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