Rocket Lab's next launch will be before the end of this month, says founder and chief executive Peter Beck - and the customer will be the US Air Force.

Read more: Beck intensifies attack on CGT

Coming straight on the heels of the Kiwi-American company's fourth customer-payload launch, in which one of its Electron rockets carried a satellite into low-Earth orbit for US Department of Defence agency Darpa - it seems bound to reanimate talk that Rocket Lab's endeavours have a military bent.

"The defence sector is very dual-use," Beck counters.

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"GPS is the best example. It's run, owned and operated and maintained by the US Air Force but we all use it to get to the supermarket."

And he emphasises that all three satellites Rocket Lab will launch for the US Air Force are "non-operational payloads, they're R&D research payloads".

One will be the Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment (Falcon ODE), sponsored by the US Air Force Academy, which will evaluate ground-based tracking of space objects - a project that should ultimately help clear up space junk.

The second is the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate (or AFRL/RV), a joint Swedish-US experiment to explore technology developments in avionics miniaturisation, software-defined radio systems, and "space situational awareness". That's a catch-all term that covers attempts to track space "weather" (such as magnetosphere fluctuations), near-Earth objects such as asteroids and, again, space debris.

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck at Mt Albert's Rocket Park. Photo / Greg Bowker.
Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck at Mt Albert's Rocket Park. Photo / Greg Bowker.

The third satellite onboard will be "Harbinger, a commercial small satellite built by York Space Systems, [which] will demonstrate the ability of an experimental commercial system to meet US Government space capability requirements." Harbinger is the toughest sell for the "dual use" argument. York wants to mass manufacture small satellites for both commercial and military customers, but it's the latter that's been getting all the buzz in industry press - particularly Harbinger's potential for a space-based missile defence system.

Heavier lifting

Beck has always maintained that Rocket Lab will stick to the small satellite market, leaving the heavier lifting to Elon Musk's Space X.

Nevertheless, the March 29 Darpa R3D2 satellite launch was the heaviest payload for Rocket Lab's Electron rocket yet, at about 150kg.

And Beck says the Electron will "really stretch its legs" when it launches the trio of satellites for the US Air Force this month, which will have a combined payload of about 180kg - close to the maximum.

The company founder says he's not nervous, however.

"The vehicle is built to carry it and we're a conservative bunch so we like to incrementally step the payload mass up," he says.

First US launch getting closer

Rocket Lab recently chose the site for its first US launch facility: Nasa's Wallops Launch Facility.

Beck says the first customer is in the bag for the maiden launch from Wallops - an established facility where Rocket Lab is building its own launchpad ready for its first US mission before the end of this year.

"The launch site is being built right now. We're driving piles and pouring concrete and the erector is being welded. There's a huge contingent of both American and Kiwi guys over there building that flat out."

Beck says Wallops will be for "bespoke" launches, while Rocket Lab's original launch site at Mahia will remain its high-volume location. Our space regulations are light and, compared to the US East Coast, our skies and shipping lanes are nearly empty - making it a lot easier to secure a launch window.

10 to 12 launches this year

Close Rocket Lab watchers will know that late last year, the company was aiming for 16 launches in 2019.

"But we got off to a bit of a slow start," Beck says,

Still, he's hoping there will be 10 to 12 launches by end of this year, including - probably closer to Christmas - a demonstration of Rocket Lab's ability to launch once a fortnight.

Beck ultimately wants to gear up for 130 orbital missions a year between Wallops and Mahia.

Morgan Stanley takes note

In a recent note, US investment bank Morgan Stanley said Rocket Lab was one of the best-positioned of some 117 start-ups jostling in the same space - despite lacking a billionaire backer in the vein of Space X's Elon Musk, Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos or Virgin Galactic's Sir Richard Branson.

That's not technically correct. One of Rocket Lab's key backers, Silicon Valley venture capital legend Vinod Khosla, is on Forbes' global 400 billionaires list with an estimated wealth of around US$2.1b - not Bezos or Musk territory, but hardly a pauper.

And Morgan Stanley does give a nod to the privately-held Rocket Lab's lineup of investors, which includes military/aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, Greenspring Associates, Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, DCVC (aka the Data Collective) Promus Ventures and one of Beck's earliest backers, Sir Stephen Tindall.

Most of the existing shareholders also participated in a Series E funding round in November that raised US$140 million ($206m) at a US1.2b valuation, according to Morgan Stanley. Rocket Lab did not give an exact figure, but said it was above US$1b.

The November round also saw the Australian Government's Future Fund and New Zealand's ACC pitch in. Beck won't say how many shares he still owns, or reveal the size of others' stakes.

Morgan Stanley gave Rocket Lab credit for three factors:

•The first was convenience, which has been increased with Rocket Lab's plans revealed this week for the "Photon" - a "space bus" as Beck has described it that will help carry a satellite into its final orbit. It's an enhancement of Rocket Lab's existing kick-stage that means small satellite customers can focus more on technology onboard their satellites and less about orbital mechanics.

•The second is cost. At US$5.7m per launch, Rocket Lab is cheap as chips in aerospace terms.

• And the third is sustainability. "Traditional methods of deploying satellites leave space-junk. However, Rocket Lab is designed to precisely deliver small satellites to orbits before deorbiting itself to leave no part of the rocket in space," Morgan Stanley says.

The investment bank also likes the fact that Rocket Lab is into the black after just a handful of launches.

No white collars here: the black T-shirted Kiwi crew at Rocket Lab's Mission Control in Auckland during the March 20 DARPA launch.
No white collars here: the black T-shirted Kiwi crew at Rocket Lab's Mission Control in Auckland during the March 20 DARPA launch.

Then there's the fact that none of its competitors in small-vehicle launching have even made it to the launchpad.

And it takes just as much capital and effort to get from your first commercial flight as it does to your first test flight, Beck says.

"Everybody's fighting to get to their first flight so we can sit back and say 'well done guys, you're not even halfway there'. Like any emerging market, being the first mover is key."

IPO on the radar?

The flattering attention from Morgan Stanley - and Rocket Lab not being shy about sharing it - will mean some will see it as early manoeuvring for a possible public listing.

"We've got more to go yet, but it's nice that Wall Street is taking notice and the investment banking community sees that by far Rocket Lab is the undisputed leader in this sector of the market," Beck says.

"The investors that we have are all tier-one Silicon Valley investors so none of them are looking for quick exits and we're able to raise capital relatively successfully - so it's not like we need to go to the public markets to raise capital.

"Our strategy from day one was always to build a very, very big enterprise - and then see what options there are. But you can see by the selection of our CFO [Adam Spice, an alumnus of Nasdaq-listed Intel and NYSE-listed MaxLinear recruited in May last year] that we're certainly making sure that if we do decide to IPO, then we're IPO-ready.

Right now, it's hard for anyone to keep up.

Morgan Stanley's "Space Disruptor" research note, released on April 2, puts Rocket Lab at 400 staff.

"We're now easily 450, the majority in New Zealand," Beck says.

"We generally double in size every year but we'll see. With the announcement of the spacecraft [the Photon], it's a whole other sector of business that we're building so who knows."

In October, his company opened a 7500sq m assembly and mission control centre in Mt Wellington which, along with a sister facility in Huntington Beach, California, is designed to pump out Electron rockets for a once-a-fortnight or higher launch frequency.

Beck says 2600 satellite launches are planned over the next four years - with the small-vehicle segment representing more than US$3b in potential business.

"For us, our biggest issue is building rockets fast enough," he says.