After his company made history by catching a falling rocket, Peter Beck explained to the Herald, why the helicopter pilot made the decision to drop it. The Rocket Lab founder and CEO also talked about Rocket Lab's share price, wunderkind Samoan Kiwi Fia Jones' cargo on the flight, his company's pending lunar mission for Nasa, and why he'll never buy a social media network.
Wild cheers went up at Rocket Lab's Auckland mission control 15 minutes and 35 seconds into the "There and Back Again" mission as a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter caught an Electron rocket booster stage - by hooking its parachute line as it fell at 10m per second.
As the whoops subsided, flight commentator Murielle Baker had just enough time to say "Absolutely incredible stuff there. We have successfully caught that Electron booster" before a much more muted "ahhh" went around mission control some 40 seconds after the snatch.
If you re-watch the archive of the livestream below, the cheer-to-gasp happens from the 52 minute, 30 second mark.
The action occurred out of view of the livestream, but founder and CEO Peter Beck later confirmed the S-92 pilot (who, with his co-pilot, chose to remain anonymous) had made the decision to drop the booster stage, which was not dangling under the helicopter as anticipated. The booster was successfully retrieved from the ocean where a backup vessel was waiting.
This is what it looked like from the front seats. pic.twitter.com/AwZfuWjwQD— Peter Beck (@Peter_J_Beck) May 3, 2022
Would Beck call the mission a success?
"Oh God yes. It was epic. We could catch a booster falling from space in mid-air. That's a pretty good day in my book."
And yet, all going well, the helicopter was supposed to ferry the Electron booster back to shore. Instead it ended up in the ocean. What happened there?
"We have to have a full debrief with the pilot, but basically we have pretty strict criteria. He captured it, he took the load, and the load wasn't as we expected and simulated. He did exactly the right thing, because it was outside the strict bounds we'd established. But really, it was a nothing. It was the last 1 per cent.
"We achieved 99 per cent of what we wanted to achieve today; all of the hard stuff. The release at the end was at the discretion of the pilot to make sure everything was safe. It was just outside the loading condition we'd agreed so it was the right thing to do."
He added, "The chute reinflated. It was a nice soft splashdown. We successfully recovered it from the ship and it's now on its way back to the factory. It's just a bit wetter than we'd hoped."
While the helicopter snatch grabbed the headlines, the "There And Back Again" mission also successfully deployed a record 34 microsatellites into low Earth orbit.
And the kickstage hosted a prototype solar array made by Astrix Aeronautics, the startup founded by Auckland wunderkind Fia Jones. Beck has part-funded Jones' startup, which is developing cheaper, more efficient solar panels for satellites.
COPIA has spread its wings!🛰️— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) May 3, 2022
This hardware from Astrix Astronautics was a hosted payload on the Kick Stage for #ThereAndBackAgain.
The inflatable solar arrays successfully unfurled, demonstrating a key step in scalable and affordable power generation in space. pic.twitter.com/3BI0bRy58S
"It's a big day for them. Another New Zealand company in space, and I understand everything went flawlessly for them," Beck says.
Beck has helped bankroll Astrix, as well as providing mentorship and, through Rocket Lab, logistical support.
'Apollo moment' pending
While Rocket Lab's helicopter snatch grabbed global attention, it might not be the Kiwi-American company's biggest moment this month.
Beck also confirmed his company is on-track to launch the Capstone satellite for Nasa within the next four weeks. After leaving Earth on an Electron, Capstone will be ferried into lunar orbit by Rocket Lab's Photon spacecraft - all for the Kiwi number 8 wire price of $14m.
Capstone will be placed into an experimental orbit within 1600km of one lunar pole on its near pass and 70,000 from the other pole at its peak every seven days - a Near Rectilinear Halo pattern that, if it works as planned, will be used for a small Nasa space station called Gateway, which in turn is a stepping stone for the US space agency to return humans to the Moon.
"This will be New Zealand's Apollo moment," Beck says.
The Capstone mission will launch from Mahia, where Rocket Lab recently added a second launchpad.
The company also recently confirmed its first Electron launch from Launch Complex 2 in Virginia.
It also recently broke ground on a new production complex in the US state for its much larger, crew-capable Neutron rocket (Virginia is chipping in with close to $70m in subsidies to go with the $77m in US military grants for Neutron).
The goal is that between its launchpad in Virginia, and its expanded twin-pad setup at Mahia, Rocket Lab will be able to support a launch every 72 hours - which would make it easily the most high-frequency space transportation operator.
Stock falling to Earth
Although Rocket Lab's helicopter mission gained some good positive US media coverage (including front page New York Times reports before and after), its recent stock market battering continued, with trading 4.7 per cent down to US$7.11 or a US$3.3 billion market cap in Tuesday trading (close to its all-time low of US$6.98), despite the major US indices edging into the green.
Rocket Lab reverse-listed on the Nasdaq via a Spac at US$10.00 per share last August.
It hit a high of US$21.34 in September, but has recently been caught in the so-called "Tech Wreck 2.0" despite its forecast to return to a slim profit next quarter as launch frequency picks up as Covid restrictions wind down, a pipeline of forward bookings that has now swelled to a value of US$545m, and the Ukraine crisis raising the possibility that Rocket Lab will now launch three re-usable Neutrons in 2024 rather than one - to help fill the gap left by the sanctions-hit Soyuz.
"The macro market conditions aren't kind [but] the company continues to meet its guidance and grow strongly," Beck says.
"So we just have to ride out the macro market conditions. It's just the way it is."
All that's left to do: Buy Facebook
Rocket Lab is now poised to join Elon Musk's SpaceX as the only launch operator with re-usable boosters.
So the Herald asks the obligatory silly closer: Does the Kiwi entrepreneur have any plans to follow Musk in buying a social media network?
"You would not believe how many times I get asked that question," Beck says.
"I can absolutely confirm I have zero plans or desire to own a social media company. I think that's a hiding to nowhere. I'm going to stick to my knitting."