The future of Kiwi space exploration is being worked on in the most unlikely of places - a factory next to a second-hand car dealer, near New Zealand's biggest mall.

But inside Rocket Lab's gleaming new plant, things suddenly take a very Star Trek turn - and not just because of the presence of opening-day guest William Shatner. Three of the company's Electron launch vehicles (or "rockets", as most people call them) are under construction on the factory floor. Sub-assembly cells feature 3D metal printers. A giant CNC (computer numerical control) unit that can mill components the size of a bus will be operational within weeks.

A 17m tall Electron can launch a small satellite into low earth orbit for US$5.7 million ($8.7m) - a bargain basement price in aerospace terms. Rocket Lab had a successful test launch in January. After several delays due to weather and minor technical glitches, its first commercial launch is slated for next month.

It's a huge space - 7500 square metres, or four times the size of Rocket Lab's old assembly plant next to Auckland Airport.

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Public relations being an important part of the space industry, the cramped area for a handful of guests at Rocket Lab's old Mangere office has been replaced by a roomy area where 150 guests can watch a launch - of which there will be many, if all goes to plan.

The new building includes a new Mission Control Centre, which will oversee launches from Rocket Lab's Mahia Peninsula launchpad, plus its pending new facility in the US.

Founder and chief executive Peter Beck says 16 flights are planned for next year.

By 2020, he wants a launch a week - hence the ramping up of production capacity.

The company is also on a hiring spree. Its staff has nearly doubled to 330 over the past year, with around 200 in New Zealand and the balance in the US.

Beck says it will hire another 180 over the next 12 months, split evenly between Auckland and LA. "That's a conservative estimate, based on our current number of projects," he says.

The founder says hiring is actually getting easier. Whereas before it was hunting for rocket scientists, these days the company is recruiting for more mainstream roles such as supply-chain specialists and sales managers.

The Mt Wellington facility - a former bicycle factory - and custom-built mission control were designed by Auckland architects Designgroup Stapleton Elliott, with building and installation carried out by Format. Photo / Supplied.
The Mt Wellington facility - a former bicycle factory - and custom-built mission control were designed by Auckland architects Designgroup Stapleton Elliott, with building and installation carried out by Format. Photo / Supplied.

Impressive as the new Mt Wellington factory is, it's still smaller than Rocket Lab's factory in Huntington Beach on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, where its "Rutherford" engines and avionics are produced.

All up, Rocket Lab now has more than 18,000sq m of manufacturing space as it gears up for Beck's ambitious rocket-a-week target.

It's part of the Kiwi-American company's plan to grab as much aerospace business as possible over the next four years - a period when various organisations want to launch 2600 satellites.

"That's not an estimate or including dreamers or companies in stealth mode, that's the actual pipeline," Beck says. "Whether there are enough customers is not one of the things that keeps me up at night."

Dozens of start-ups are chasing the same pool of customers. "But we're the only ones who've made it to the launchpad," he says.

And although he wants a flight a week - which would make his company easily the highest-frequency rocket-launching operation on the planet, Beck has no plans to move up the food chain and challenge the heavy-lifting Space X. He says Rocket Lab will stay in its small rocket, small satellite niche, delivering sub-150kg payloads into low Earth orbit. That's where most of the market demands rests, he says. (And, incidentally, Beck has no ambition to go into space himself. He says he's too familiar with the dangers.)

Shatner and Beck with Rocket Lab staff. The company has 330 employees today, with around 200 in Auckland and the balance in LA. It will hire another 180 or more over the next year.
Shatner and Beck with Rocket Lab staff. The company has 330 employees today, with around 200 in Auckland and the balance in LA. It will hire another 180 or more over the next year.

Rocket Lab has very Kiwi roots. This reporter first covered Peter Beck back in 2009 as the one-time Fisher & Paykel engineer launched a tiny, sub-orbital rocket from Sir Michael Fay's Mercury Island.

The launch did not go well. "Coromandel, we have a problem," I wrote as Beck lost track of his rocket during its descent and asked local boaties to keep an eye out. It was never found. To my unscientific eye, it seemed closer to a student jape than The Right Stuff (though even to say "student" is misleading; Beck is self-taught and never went to university).

The observation area behind Mission Control can hold 150 guests. Photo / Supplied.
The observation area behind Mission Control can hold 150 guests. Photo / Supplied.

Others had more appreciation for Beck's innovations in engine and fuel systems for small rockets. Heavyweight investors like Lockheed Martin and Silicon Valley legend Vinod Khosla came onboard and the company was re-incorporated in California.

The US Department of Defence's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and NASA both came calling, wanting a closer look at Rocket Lab's technology. NASA became an early customer.

In early 2017, Rocket Lab raised US$75m at a post-money valuation of more than US$1 billion (to date, the company has raised US$148m).

Beck politely declines to reveal the size of his stake today, beyond saying that he now holds a minority of the company. He says there is still a "significant New Zealand shareholding".

Early investor Sir Stephen Tindall supported the 2017 round through his K1W1 fund, though indication are that the rich lister participated at a modest level (the round was led by a group of US venture capitalists who call themselves The Data Collective).

Beck says "we're an American company and have been for a long time." He says New Zealanders should celebrate that as a sign of success.

His ambitions are global. Rocket Lab's first launches have been from its custom-built facility at Mahia Peninsula. But its next launchpad will be in the US. It will announce the location from a shortlist of four sites in about a fortnight, Beck says. The company is already scouting in the UK for a third launchpad location, with plans for a fourth in Asia to follow.

Beck says different locations allow for satellites to be launched to different orbital inclinations. But it's also partly a commercial decision. Some American customers just want to be close to the launch action, he says.

But although its corporate headquarters are in the US, the Mt Wellington factory is a tangible commitment to keeping a big chunk of production in New Zealand.

Beck says Auckland will also remain the centre for most of Rocket Lab's R&D.

And while he sees Rocket Lab launchpads dotted around the world in years to come, he says New Zealand will always be the company's highest-volume location for launches.

There's patriotism in that stance, but also a lot of pragmatism. New Zealand has relatively light aerospace regulation compared to other parts of the world and "no air or shipping traffic" as Beck puts it. (Those queuing for the Koru Lounge might think our skies are crowded, but by international standards they're empty.)

And she's here. L-to-R: Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, William Shatner, US Ambassador to NZ Scott Brown and Rocket Lab foudner Peter Beck. Photo / Chris Keall
And she's here. L-to-R: Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, William Shatner, US Ambassador to NZ Scott Brown and Rocket Lab foudner Peter Beck. Photo / Chris Keall

Moreover, Rocket Lab owns its Mahia launch facility (the world's only private launchpad) and its down-range tracking station in the Chatham Islands. Beck likes that total control. It suits his high-frequency launch plans.

By contrast, the four US sites it is looking at (Cape Canaveral, Wallops Flight Facility, Pacific Spaceport Complex and Vandenberg Air Force Base) are all established facilities, where it can install its own launchpad amid existing infrastructure.

Given the regulatory environment in the US, that was the only feasible path, Beck says.

In New Zealand, the skies are clearer.