As a kid, Richard Hunter read his father's Tintin comics about the adventurer going to the Moon.
The lunar escapade planted something in Hunter's mind. He's now devising the path that Rocket Lab will use to send a spacecraft into the Moon's orbit for Nasa.
The mission is a crucial early step in returning a man - and the first woman - to the Moon, something that's scheduled for 2024.
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Hunter, speaking at Rocket Lab's Auckland base, says he was always a curious child.
That paid off - first he studied for a mechanical engineering degree at Canterbury University and then, after winning a Fulbright Science and Innovation Award, a master's in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States.
There he wrote a thesis on lunar mission astrodynamics.
Hunter joined Rocket Lab last year as a guidance, navigation and control (GNC) engineer and is now at the heart of the New Zealand-founded company's most ambitious project yet.
Its spacecraft will fly nearly 60,000km deeper into space than it has before, at never previously reached speeds.
To escape low Earth orbit, its Photon spacecraft will fly at 11km a second (a third faster than it's flown before), which Hunter says is the equivalent of flying from Auckland to Queenstown in 90 seconds.
"That is really quick." says Hunter, who does a good line in understatement.
The company's 11 commercial missions so far have taken it to low Earth orbit - about 250km above Earth - but the Moon mission scheduled for next year will be in a more hostile environment than Rocket Lab's hardware has ever been subjected to.
"The chance to work on a Moon mission as a New Zealander is unbelievable - I'm standing on the backs of all the really talented people that built this rocket before I turned up," says Hunter.
The 30-year-old, orginially from Christchurch, is working on the trajectory for the Photon, which will be carrying more fuel to power its HyperCurie engine than it normally does to deploy satellites in low Earth orbit.
It will perform elliptical orbits - oval shaped - building up speed over nine days until it is deep enough into space to send Nasa's Capstone vehicle into lunar orbit.
Capstone's journey will take three months and the ride on Rocket Lab will cost Nasa $15.3m.
''Normally, the most efficient way, we do one big burn, and that would take us all the way there as Apollo did," says Hunter. "But we can't do this big, long burn as we have a small craft so we've basically got to cheat, by doing a series of short burns at this optimal point.''
Capstone is an acronym for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment - essentially a 27kg bundle of brains to blaze the trail for a space station for the new generation of lunar astronauts.
Capstone's primary objective is to test and verify the stability of the same orbit planned for the Lunar Gateway, a small space station that will circle the Moon to provide astronauts with access to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis programme.
It will feature living quarters for astronauts, a lab for science and research and ports for visiting spacecraft.
Hunter rates it "11 out of 10" for difficulty when compared to low Earth orbit missions.
"It's the lunar version, which means expanded tanks so that we can carry more fuel, with a more powerful propulsion system, it means having radiation-tolerant hardware because it's going through a much more harsh environment than it does just to drop a small spacecraft off in low Earth orbit,'' he says.
The craft will have to make its way through the Van Allen radiation belt, bands charged with protons and electrons which are held in place by the magnetic field of the Earth. Those bands start 650km from Earth and were once thought to be a danger to Apollo astronauts flying through them. (The belts proved not to be harmful to humans.)
While other bigger - and much more expensive - state-funded operations had taken a similar path, every mission is unique in its own way and there's no trial run for Rocket Lab.
It's being done on the fly, with controllers flying Photon around the clock.
"Normally what we do is we pre-program the mission and you can never fully understand all the variables, so you allow for some variation, some unknowns, and you run thousands of simulations to make sure you cover all eventualities,'' says Hunter.
"We're flying for a week doing all these loads and there's just so much uncertainty that builds up; you can't pre program it. Also, we have to be doing navigation on the fly. We have to be talking to the spacecraft, figuring out where it is, adjusting our next burn and uploading commands."
While Rocket Lab intends to carry out most of its launches from its complex at Mahia south of Gisborne, the Moon mission will lift off from its newly completed pad at Wallops, Virginia, tailored especially for US Government missions.
Photon also has another purpose. It will do a lunar fly-by and then go deeper into interplanetary space. Although it's not the mission's primary role, Rocket Lab will be able to communicate with the craft to gather data that could help with future missions to other planets.
Heading the Moon mission is Amanda Stiles, who has worked for public and private space firms in the United States and likes what she sees at Rocket Lab.
She's the director of mission management and integration after more than 15 years' experience in space operations, engineering and management.
She was director of the Google Lunar X Prize, which worked with commercial lunar companies competing to send privately-funded spacecraft to the Moon.
She was also involved in mission operations at SpaceX, where she led development of the Falcon 9 ground simulator, and was recovery co-ordinator for early first-stage recovery efforts - seen in action following the manned launch from Cape Canaveral in May.
At Nasa she worked on small spacecraft and the Space Shuttle programme.
Stiles says the Moon mission at Rocket Lab will touch every part of the company. Earlier this year 15 people among the nearly 400-strong Rocket Lab staff were involved directly in the project, and that will increase closer to launch.
Stiles is focused on propulsion systems, the launch site and working with Nasa.
She says she was attracted to Rocket Lab by its culture.
"I loved that it was a small group of very motivated people from non-traditional backgrounds, not necessarily going to school for aerospace. It's the Kiwi innovation that New Zealanders are so proud of."
She says the Moon mission could be a forerunner to others into deep space.
Morgan Bailey is head of communications at Rocket Lab and says international media interest in the company has been intense.
There are dozens of specialist space journalists in the United States, where Rocket Lab is based.
With the exception of its first launch - christened "It's a Test" - the programme's technology has had a dream run, but has come in for criticism for carrying payloads that enhance US spy agencies' capacity, or for taking up cargo that some have labelled as frivolous.
After a Covid-19-enforced pause, the company is resuming its business of high frequency launches into low Earth orbit, with another mission planned for early next month. Rocket Lab is also close to completing a second launch pad at Mahia and is on track to trial recovery of the first stage of its Electron, using a helicopter to snare it as it descends with parachutes deployed.
Bailey has worked with Rocket Lab since 2014 and lives and breathes every launch.
"Absolutely nothing prepares you for launch day," she says. "The moment of liftoff is all-consuming – I'm a bundle of nerves, adrenaline, sheer joy, pride, and then finally relief when the payloads are deployed to orbit."
While it's hard to get close up to view launches from Mahia, tens of thousands of people could be attracted to Wallops Island.