Rocket Lab will hit a milestone with its next launch - bringing up double figures and taking a critical step in expanding its capacity for rapid fire lift-off.
Next Thursday is the opening for its 10th mission which company founder Peter Beck rates as a "massive milestone" given its 100 per cent success rate at getting 40 satellites into space.
It will also be an early step towards recovering the Electron Rocket's 12.1m tall first stage rather than have it disintegrate as it falls to earth.
Beck says it's a massive change to the programme with the rocket having new monitoring equipment aboard it.
The rocket will be monitored from ground stations and also an aircraft in the middle of the ocean to get as much data from the stage before it burns up.
In later launches the stage will have its own small engines to allow a controlled re-entry and it will be recovered by a helicopter as it drifts back to earth after deploying parachutes.
Beck said there would be a limited opportunity to gather data in this coming launch - named "Running out of Fingers" as the stage will endure super hot temperatures.
It will descend at about the same speed as it climbs, eight and a half times the speed of sound, close to 10,800km/h.
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The plasma it will generate is roughly the temperature of the sun - 7500C.
When the recovery programme is up and running it will have to slow re-entry down to 12.3km/h as the stage coasts down towards the ocean where a helicopter will hook parachute lines and transfer it to a ship to be transported back to the range site in Mahia.
"In theory because we're electrically turbo pumped and we don't use any nasty ignition chemicals so we could in theory pick it up put it back on the pad, charge it up and fly it again," said Beck.
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The aim was to increase launch frequency. It simply can't build Electrons quickly enough because it doesn't have enough people to do the job.
The jury was out on whether it would save money because it was not known what sort of refurbishment would be needed.
"If I want to double production here I've got to add another production line and more people and that's throttled by the number of people we can hire."
If the US-New Zealand business couldn't hire people fast enough it ''the obvious way to double production is not to throw it away".
During the last year the number of staff spread between its Mt Wellington headquarters and the launch site had doubled to 400 and another 100 in the US where it has a base in Los Angeles and a pad soon to open in Virginia.
He said the company was actively hiring for a range of roles ranging from composite apprentices to corporate controllers in the United States who had experience with Nasdaq listings.
"The money is excellent - we also have staff equity schemes. For the best we offer equity in the company. There's been opportunities in the past to monetise that equity and there's a number of folks walking around here who have done incredibly well. And that is great," said Beck in the boardroom of the Mt Wellington plant.
The room has as its centrepiece a mighty 8m long table made of carbon fibre, the same material that makes the fleet of eight rockets in the gleaming assembly line below.
Beck says Rocket Lab was a "hot asset right now" and he has been approached to take the company public but there was no pressure to do so right now. The company was sitting on big cash reserves following a $200 million funding round last year. Revenue from launch customers was coming in too.
"The reasons you go public are if you're struggling to raise money in the private market and that's not the case with us or you're trying to create a liquidation event for any of your investors and our investors," he said.
"I think I'm a quarter of the way along where I want to be on this journey - none of our investors are looking to jump."
All the same the company made sure it was IPO-ready but there were no timelines around it.
Junk in space
The launch put down for next week will include the ALE-2 satellite from Japanese company ALE.
The Sun said ALE-2 would provide artificial meteor showers on-demand, at the location of their choice, a payload that has attracted some flak.
Beck said universities were studying the re-entry effects on these particles.
Any payload that goes on electron goes through "vigorous process" in the United States and in New Zealand.
"I got my fair share of stick for the Humanity Star but that was a very short lived," said Beck in reference to the "disco ball" satellite launched at the end of 2017.
"I think it always prompts important discussion about how we're utilising space sustainably. There's good science going on."
Beck said what he was more concerned about was the "blatant disregard" for how space was being littered.
Rocket Lab had a strict policy on minimising any space debris by how we've designed the vehicle.
Most second stages only live about four weeks and then burn up as. Its Curie engine reignites one last time to perform a de-orbit manoeuvre. This drastically lowers the kick stage's orbit, enabling it to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up without a trace once its work in space is done.
"All our emerging competitors don't do that. They're just dumping giant second stages into orbit. That is a real issue here."
Rocket Lab had to be assigned a launch window by Space Command when there were gaps to avoid "conjunction issues" - the potential for a collision.