Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck didn't sleep last Friday night. As the company's chief engineer, his mind was running through all the systems and sub-systems incorporated into the company's 12-tonne rocket. Every contribution made by the team of engineers hung in time, as the countdown crept closer.

"I don't think anyone sleeps the night before a launch at Rocket Lab," Beck tells the Weekend Herald. "It's certainly nervous times."

The cluster of nerves orbiting Beck's stomach didn't subside on the dawn of day one of the nine-day launch window.

The Rocket Lab team had been closely watching the weather and were cautiously optimistic the launch could go ahead on the day.

Advertisement

Beck had been here before. Only a few weeks earlier in December, his launch attempt had been thwarted only two seconds before lift-off by the invisible enemy of airborne moisture.

Last Saturday, January 20, everything seemed to be going according to plan, until, in a moment that could have been plucked from a Taika Waititi script, a rogue boat interrupted the launch only two minutes before the scheduled lift-off.

Beck could have been forgiven for looking at the heavens and wondering whether the nimby gods were conspiring against the introduction of Beck's technology into their neighbourhood.

But as a man of science, Beck took a more pragmatic view: "there's no point in getting frustrated," he says.

"This business takes no prisoners. It couples intense elation with intense frustration."

For Beck, it meant another sleepless night.

Like all good stories, success prevailed and Rocket Lab was able to successfully launch at 2.45pm, Sunday, January 21.

The response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive, with people from around the world congratulating the company for taking a tiny nation into space.

Advertisement

Many of the responses that meant most to Beck came from younger New Zealanders, who said the launch had inspired them to pursue a career in engineering.

"It's always great to see that level of inspiration and there's also a patriotic pride that comes from seeing the country enter into a field generally reserved for superpowers," he says.

Beck also hopes Rocket Lab's success encourages more women to enter the field, following successful engineers such as avionics manager Naomi Altman, who runs the largest team at the company.

There are only 40 women among the 220-strong team working on Rocket Lab's Electron launch programme, but Beck hopes that will change in coming years.

While the overall response has been celebratory, this wouldn't be a New Zealand story if there wasn't an environmental activist questioning the veracity of New Zealand's green image.

In this case, New Zealand astronomer Ian Griffith accused Rocket Lab of polluting the night sky with its "disco ball" - a reflective sphere that will be visible from Earth, until it falls out of orbit in about nine months.

Far from throwing the first tin can into what could eventually become a south Pacific orbital garbage patch, Beck says Rocket Lab's approach is "incredibly environmentally sustainable".

"We don't go into geo-centric orbit where space ships sit out there in a graveyard for the next 20,000 years. We go into lower orbit where the spacecraft degrades out of orbit very quickly, usually within five to seven years, and then re-enters the Earth's atmosphere and burns back out."

Beck adds that orbiting satellites can also play an important environmental role by monitoring the impacts of climate change and deforestation.

"The infrastructure you can build in space to serve humanity is phenomenal," he says.

"The real goal of Rocket Lab is not to build rockets but to start a small satellite revolution. When you do that, some tremendously exciting things can happen down here on Earth."

In making space accessible and affordable to companies rather than countries, Beck says futuristic ideas such as facilitating an internet connection to every single person on the planet become viable.

So what else could this tech revolution inspire? "I maintain that the best ideas haven't been thought of yet," he replies.

With that in mind, this New Zealand story is to be continued.