Peter Beck, the usually buttoned down engineer, let his hair down at Rocket Lab mission control as he watched his Electron rocket clear the tower at Mahia.

The rocket didn't make it to orbit as planned, but it made it to space and Beck said he had plenty to celebrate inside the nerve centre in Auckland.

Along with others in the highly-restricted mission control he was whooping and hollering as the 17m-tall rocket blasted off from the launch pad at the tip of the Mahia Peninsula more than 350km away.

Most other start-up rocket programmes haven't made it that far, the majority staying on the drawing board, others blowing up on the launch pad or early in flight. Beck has in the past got very enthusiastic talking about engineering and rocket science, but he's not usually given to displaying much emotion.


He's a cool and clinical planner; to date keener talking about ground testing and trials than the glory and glamour of space. But he was ecstatic on the night of the rocket's three-minute journey into space, even though its orbital mission was not completed.

That will now be the focus of analysis of thousands of data streams from the rocket, the company christened "ItsaTest" to explicitly spell out the trial nature of the launch.

It now has two more test launches to get that right

In the days before the launch Beck mentioned that there would be a quiet celebration if they pulled it off. That turned in to a "heck of a party" after he awarded the lift-off a 10 out of 10.

"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.

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck in the mission control room.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck in the mission control room.

"It was a beautiful mission to watch."

He paid tribute to his team, many rookies in the space game, who had developed the Electron and launch system.

The range operator Shaun D'Mello was a 25-year-old "with the weight of the world on his shoulders".


Mission control is tightly restricted around launch time and operates under the United States' Federal Aviation Administration rules about unauthorised personnel.

The rocket launch from Mahia Peninsula.
The rocket launch from Mahia Peninsula.

There is also concern about giving away trade secrets to satellite industry competitors and countries or groups who could use the technology for weapons.

For Beck, 40, the launch was another step in the "long journey and wild ride" of just over a decade of Rocket Lab and a lifetime of thinking about space.

He's pushing the message that his company - and New Zealand - is well and truly in the space game, however, the real celebrations will start when Rocket Lab is making money out of delivering small satellites into orbit at the rate of up to more than twice a week.

Rocket Lab's Electron during take off.
Rocket Lab's Electron during take off.

And that's the tough part.

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.

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

Rocket Lab can draw on up to $25m of Government funding over five years, but its main backers include US companies Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Data Collective, Promus Ventures, Lockheed Martin and Stephen Tindall's K1W1.
The company claims a value of $1 billion.

The company's full name is Rocket Lab USA and it is majority-owned by Americans and registered in the United States, but retains its Kiwi origins.

A silver fern was on its nose on Thursday, and besides the ground crew at Mahia and specialists at mission control there's scores of rocket designers, engineers and builders based at its humming base near Auckland Airport.

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck in the mission control room.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck in the mission control room.

The government signed up to international treaties and pushed through regulations to facilitate the programme which it hopes could be part of an industry worth billions of dollars.

From a family of Invercargill engineers, Beck has always been hands-on. At school he pulled an old Mini apart and rebuilt it part by part, souping it up with a turbocharger.

A toolmaking apprenticeship at Fisher & Paykel gave him access to top of the line machinery and materials after hours, before going on to found Rocket Lab in 2006.

Peter Beck rejoices.
Peter Beck rejoices.

In the build-up to opening its base at Mahia late last year, Beck told the Herald Rocket Lab was trying to do something tremendously challenging.

Married with two children, (a part of his life, like his financial stake in the company, that he was not keen to talk about) it's been six-day weeks for much of the last decade.

"This is what I want to do with my life - it's not that I feel I get sick of this and I want to go and sit on the beach."