Home News Rocket Lab keeps expanding in year of major announcements

Rocket Lab keeps expanding in year of major announcements

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket takes off for the firm’s 21st mission, “It’s a Little Chile Up Here,” in late July. Photo courtesy of Rocket Lab.

Not unlike the universe it has set out to explore, Rocket Lab has been in a constant state of expansion since its founding in 2006 by Peter Beck. And since the company’s move to Long Beach at the start of 2020, that expansion has been accelerating—from new mission contracts to acquisitions to going public.

“We’re always busy,” Beck said in an Oct. 19 phone interview, “but it’s safe to say we’re slightly busier than normal.”

In 2021 alone, Rocket Lab has announced more than a dozen new contracts, several of which are for multiple launches. The company has had four launches of its Electron rocket—a launch vehicle for small commercial satellitesso far in 2021, three of which successfully deployed a combined nine satellites into orbit. (The Electron rocket malfunctioned during a May 15 mission.)

Since May 2017, the company has launched 21 Electron rockets.

“Electron has solidified itself,” Beck said, “as the go-to for dedicated small launch.”

In the news

And there’s still another launch or two in store for 2021.

Late last month, the firm announced Launch No. 22: the deployment of two Earth-observation satellites for global monitoring company BlackSky, including a controlled ocean splashdown and recovery of the rocket’s first stage.

Rocket Lab may squeeze in its 23rd launch before the end of the year, but that remains uncertain, according to a company spokesperson.

The upcoming mission, which could lift off as early as Nov. 11 from the company’s New Zealand launch complex, is Rocket Lab’s third ocean recovery of an Electron stage, but the first during which a helicopter will be stationed in the recovery zone, 200 nautical miles offshore, to track and visually observe the descending stage “in preparation for future aerial capture attempts.”

The helicopter will not attempt a mid-air caption during this mission, the company said in the announcement.

For 2022, at least four Rocket Lab launches are already on the books.

The company has announced other major partnerships this year, as well. Among the most notable are the use of two of Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft in a NASA mission to mars, as well as launch services for NASA’s CAPSTONE mission to the moon.

During the Mars mission, the twin Photons will complete an 11-month trip to the Red Planet before inserting themselves into orbit. The lunar mission, meanwhile, will put the 55-pound CAPSTONE satellite in a unique elliptical lunar orbit to provide information for future lunar missions, including putting the first woman on the moon.

Other 2021 announcements have included:

  • the launch of NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System satellite, which will demonstrate lightweight booms attached to a CubeSat nanosatellite to support a solar sail;
  • the launch of the Active Debris Removal by Astroscal-Japan, which will demonstrate technology that could be used to remove space debris from orbit in the future; and
  • a five-launch contract with the French global connectivity provider Kinéi​s to put 25 satellites in orbit.

“We don’t like doing boring, dumb stuff,” Beck said, noting that several of the upcoming missions are highly complex. “We like to do really exciting, hard things. That’s where we excel.”

A view of Earth from space during a Rocket Lab test mission. Photo courtesy of Rocket Lab.

No business like space business

The company’s success so far is clear in its growth.

“The space system side of the business has grown really, really strongly,” Beck said, “with new production lines, new contracts [and] building satellites.”

In August, Rocket Lab announced it was going public. In September, it announced the construction of a new 380,000-square-foot production facility in New Zealand, which will make reaction wheels (a type of flywheel used for three-axis attitude control) for spacecraft at scale, rather than the historically slow one-by-one process. And in mid-October, it acquired Colorado-based Advanced Solutions, Inc., an engineering firm that develops space software, mission simulation and test systems, and guidance, navigation and control systems.

Rocket Lab’s revenue, of course, reflects its success: It’s up more than 200% from last year, Beck said. To keep up, the firm continues to hire. In February of this year, the company had 530 employees. As of mid-October, that number has increased to about 650 full-timers, according to Beck.

“We need to fuel growth and man that growth,” Beck said, noting that the company has about 100 job openings at any given time. “Hiring continues to be the number one challenge.”

Rocket Lab’s move to Long Beach was primarily driven by the need to keep up with growth, Beck said. The talent pool and infrastructure in Long Beach, which has a long history with aerospace and aviation, is ideal for growth in the space sector, Beck said.

“Huntington Beach was great, but there’s just not the kind of critical mass of industry around you that you can draw from,” Beck said. On top of Long Beach’s existing engineering workforce, the city also has a continuous flow of new engineering talents from Cal State Long Beach.

In the past, Beck said the firm typically doubles in size every year. However, that milestone is becoming harder to achieve now that the company has reached its current level, he said.

Creating a legacy

Rocket Lab, though, is not alone in the private space sector boom.

Beck acknowledged efforts by other companies, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

“Affordable access to space creates a lot of opportunities to do things in orbit and satellites have gotten a lot smaller,” Beck said. “So the cost … has dropped significantly. We’ll look back on this time as the time the space industry really desegregated itself from being a purely government-dominated domain. We’re witnessing firsthand, in real time, the democratization of space as a domain.”

But one of the most significant Rocket Lab announcements of 2021—both for its present and for its future—had nothing to do with going to space. On Aug. 20, Vector Acquisition Corporation shareholders approved a merger with Rocket Lab, allowing the latter to go public. Rocket Lab debuted on the Nasdaq stock exchange five days later.

Beck said the intention was always to take the company public, but the plan was accelerated this year to “take advantage of the market situation.” The company has never had a shortage in capital, Beck said, but as a public firm, it’s easier to access  larger amounts of funding. Going public also will allow Rocket Lab to land larger deals that it has previously missed out on because it was competing with companies that have a “public currency,” he added.

On a personal level, Beck said going public was important to him as a means to ensure the survival of what he calls his legacy.

“If you look across space companies there are, in general, a lot of personalities involved,” Beck said, noting that the likes of Branson, Bezos and Musk are often at the forefront of coverage for their respective companies. “My time on this planet is finite. I want [Rocket Lab] to be a multigenerational space company.

“When you build a private company and there’s just one individual that’s all around it, there’s no succession planning there. There’s no Plan B. What’s going to happen with all those guys cash in their chips?”

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