Rocket Lab has taken another major step toward its first launch from US soil, rolling out the Electron rocket to its new pad at Nasa's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The launch will be for US President Donald Trump's newly-minted US Space Force, which has been established as a branch of the US Air Force.

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The STP-27RM (Space Test Programme 27 Rocket Lab Monolith) mission will launch a single micro-sat from the Air Force Research Laboratory's Monolith programme, which is designed to determine the ability of small satellites to support large aperture payloads to monitor space weather.


The mission is being co-ordinated by the US Space Force's Space and Missile Systems Centre and is scheduled to launch no earlier than the third quarter of 2020.

Virginia is in lockdown, but Rocket Lab staff can still carry out essential work because "Rocket Lab's critical work provides responsive access to space for the nation's civil, defence, and national security payloads".

However, a battery of further tests is required before the first US launch, pushing its launch window to July at the earliest.

Beck tells the Herald that his company's Mission Control centre in Auckland is now fully operational with NZ's move to level 3.

However, its "Don't Stop Me Now" mission from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula - originally planned for March 24 - is still on hold, with no estimated launch date.

"We're now ready to launch, but currently border restrictions are preventing specialists from entering the country, which is having a negative impact. Our team is on standby to launch as soon as those restrictions are eased," Beck says.

Once it does launch, "Don't Stop Me Now" will carry small satellites into low Earth orbit for customers including Nasa, the University of New South Wales and the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), a sister intelligence agency to the CIA.

NZ will remain in the frame

The new Launch Complex 2 in Virginia will also host Rocket Lab's marquee launch early next year in support of Nasa's planned return to the moon by 2024.


"The upcoming Capstone mission that will see our Electron launch vehicle and Photon spacecraft deliver a Nasa satellite to lunar orbit next year," Beck says.

With a roster of investors that includes US defence giant Lockheed Martin and various Silicon Valley heavyweights (as well as NZ's ACC and Sir Stephen Tindall), Rocket Lab some time ago re-incorporated in the US. Huntington Beach in LA is home to its corporate office and its largest facility, which produces its signature Rutherford engines (although it also has a substantial assembly facility in Auckland).

Rocket Lab's helicopter drop-test Video / Supplied

Is New Zealand in danger of slipping out of the Rocket Lab frame?

No. The majority of its staff are here. And Beck says while some US government clients require a launch from US soil, there are strong practical reasons why Mahia will remain central to his company's operations.

"Launch Complex 1 will always remain Rocket Lab's high volume launch pad thanks to the launch frequency we can achieve from the site. We're licensed for up to 120 missions per year from Launch Complex 1, something that's possible thanks to the minimal air and sea traffic at the launch site," Beck told the Herald this morning.

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"In the United States, launching a rocket typically involves delaying or diverting scores, if not hundreds, of commercial flights as well as shipping traffic."

The Rocket Lab boss added, "Ultimately having two launch sites is about offering small satellite customers choice - they can choose their launch location and timing to best suit their mission. It's a level of flexibility that until now was reserved for large, billion-dollar satellites riding on much larger launch vehicles."

He points out that the Mahia site is being expanded to support more frequent launches from NZ.

Covid 19: Focus on the 'higher-order' bits

Beck also remains very much part of the local political discourse.

Appearing on Paul Henry's Rebuilding Paradise last night, he said given the Government was going deeply into debt in its efforts to rebuild the economy post-pandemic, it should focus on "the higher-order bits" where it could get a return on its money.

Beck gave the example of the tourism sector, where throwing money at the hospitality sector now could prove fruitless with no demand.


"In tourism, the highest-order bit is the border," the Rocket Lab founder said. "Make New Zealand's borders the safest and most secure to enable the flow of tourism then everything downstream from that naturally flows."

And we're already seeing some movement on that front, with one of Beck's former Rocket Lab colleagues, Ralph Shale, now pushing thermal cameras offered by his Fever Screen startup as an answer to tightening NZ's border security, and making it more efficient.

Beck added, "In my industry, I was on the phone talking to the US Government today about how the space industry is going to fare through all of this and my advice was 'Don't buy a launch'. There's no point in stimulating one sector of the market that's relatively far down the chain.

"The best thing to do of course is to stimulate programmes, create programmes that in turn build spacecraft, which in turn require launch, which in turn require us to support our supply chain."

Our Government's approach should be guided by the "never waste a crisis" maxim, Beck said.

"The house is burnt to the ground. We can either rebuild the house with the same wobbly pipes or leaky roof or really leverage this crisis to rebuild the country with something much, much superior. It's a desperate time but a massive opportunity to be bold. We are nation-building now."