As it prepares for its first launch from US soil, Kiwi-American company Rocket Lab has been hailed by the Washington Post as "The most successful startup since SpaceX."
That notice follows a major New York Times piece on founder Peter Beck's aspiration for a Venus mission.
Rocket Lab chose Nasa's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia as the site of its first launch complex outside New Zealand.
Launch Complex 2 is now complete, following some minor delays with Covid lockdowns, and Rocket Lab's and the company is good-to-go for its first US lift-off - mission will launch a single micro-sat from the Air Force Research Laboratory's Monolith programme, which is designed to determine the ability of small satellites to support large aperture payloads to monitor space weather.
"We're ready to launch, so now it's just a matter of waiting for Nasa to complete some required software - Autonomous Flight Termination Software or AFTS - on their end before we can launch," a Rocket Lab spokeswoman told the Herald this morning.
"We have flown AFTS from LC-1, but it will be the first time an AFTS system has been flown from a Nasa range so they need to carry out some pretty significant work for the first time on their end. We currently don't have an ETA for this Nasa software completion."
The Wallops facility was born as a Navy air station during World War II, before playing a role at the dawn of the Space Age as a test site for the Mercury programme, the Post says. Now, it's re-emerging from obscurity, with Rocket Lab joining another newcomer to the site, Northrop Grumman's Antares programme.
"While Rocket Lab is largely focused on national security missions, Northrop Grumman launches its Antares rocket to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station on cargo resupply missions at a rate of about two a year, including a picture-perfect launch from the Virginia coast Friday at 9.16 p.m [2.15pm Saturday NZT]," the Post says.
Rocket Lab wants to launch to orbit as frequently as once a month from Wallops, which would make the facility the second busiest launch site in the country, behind Cape Canaveral, which is on track to fly 39 rockets to orbit this year.
The Post says Rocket Lab will be a major boost for Virginia.
However, the company, which has 14 successful launches under its belt since May 2017, is ultimately aiming for a launch a fortnight from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula - and is licensed for more.
"Launch Complex 1 will always remain Rocket Lab's high volume launch pad thanks to the launch frequency we can achieve from the site. We're licensed for up to 120 missions per year from Launch Complex 1, something that's possible thanks to the minimal air and sea traffic at the launch site," Beck told the Herald.
The Rocket Lab boss added, "Ultimately having two launch sites is about offering small satellite customers choice - they can choose their launch location and timing to best suit their mission. It's a level of flexibility that until now was reserved for large, billion-dollar satellites riding on much larger launch vehicles."
Beck also pointed out that the Mahia site is being expanded to support more frequent launches from NZ.
Rocket Lab's Rutherford Engines are being made at its largest factory, in LA, and US aeronautic and defence company Lockheed Martin numbers among its largest investors.
But around 450 of the company's 600-odd staff work at its Auckland assembly plant or in Mahia, and it maintains local investors including Sir Stephen Tindall, ACC and Peter Beck himself.
Rocket Lab's Electron may be a pipsqueak of a rocket, a quarter of the size of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, but the company hopes it will be a workhorse, launching once a month from here, in flights that should be visible up and down the Mid-Atlantic, the Post says.
And Rocket Lab's ability for fast-turnaround missions has caught the eye of both the Pentagon and Nasa.
The space agency has hired Rocket Lab to launch a small satellite to the Moon to serve as a precursor for human missions by testing the orbit for the space station Nasa hopes will help get astronauts to the lunar surface. That mission, scheduled for next year, would be the first Nasa mission to the Moon since the 2013 launch of a satellite — also launched from Wallops — that gathered data about the thin lunar atmosphere.
"The Moon mission would be a major milestone for Wallops and Rocket Lab, which has taken a clear lead in a race to build small, relatively affordable launch vehicles that could fly small satellites to orbit frequently and on short notice," the Post says.
"That is of particular interest to the Pentagon and intelligence community, which has long wanted the ability to quickly launch a reconnaissance satellite over, say, North Korea."
RocketLab has copped a degree of flak for its US military-heavy payload schedule, but Beck has argued that Department of Defence and US Air Force cargo carried by his company's Electron rockets has always research-based rather than operational. Many technologies are dual use, the founder has argued - pointing the to the public good provided by GPS (originally created for the US military) as an example.