HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. – Space is becoming more accessible for research and private industry because launch companies, including Rocket Lab, are reducing the cost to access in a growing and competitive market.
The private space company brands itself as a one-stop shop from its services of building a customer’s satellite to launching it into space on a carbon-fiber rocket.
The question becomes what sets a small launcher company apart from the competition.
Based in Huntington Beach, California, but Rocket Lab is known for its rocket launches off New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. It’s also doing something its competitors aren’t by providing an in-house designed satellite platform.
The platform, called Photon, provides transportation for consumers’ payload so there is no need for them to design one themselves or pay another company to build one. Rocket Lab solves the access problem and the space problem, chief Photon engineer Grant Bonin told News 6 during a visit to its California headquarters.
“We don’t want customers to be distracted by the problem of building their own satellites,” said Bonin. “We want them to focus on making money, and we’ll do the space mission for you.”
Rocket Lab’s business model takes advantage of the market’s current demand for space access.
“There’s almost $400 billion of global, annual space product that happens but most of it is people making money off of services, not building the hardware,” he said.
Electron, the company’s rocket, launched for the first time in 2017. To date, 35 satellites have been successfully delivered to space, according to Rocket Lab’s website.
“What we’ve designed here is a vehicle that can accommodate the microsatellites and the cube satellites that have been waiting around for something just like us to help give them this dedicated ride to space,” said Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of global launch services.
It costs under $10 million for customers who want to buy the entire rocket, he said. Some factors that impact the launch price include what type of orbit the spacecraft needs, the time of the mission and the weight of the satellite.
However, if a customer wants to rideshare with other payloads, it significantly lowers the cost.
On the low end of the spectrum, a small cube satellite, or CubeSat, can cost about $100,000 or less for certain universities and schools that have an agreement with Rocket Lab, Hoffman said.
On a previous launch, one of the payloads came from the U.S. Air Force Academy, he said. Their small CubeSat explored tracking orbital debris, also known as space junk.
“Just like other industries, technology has evolved and improved and miniaturized,” Hoffman said. “There’s a small end of the launch market that needed this ride into space that didn’t exist before.”
Hundreds of other private space companies, both domestic and international, are trying to enter this market, he told News 6.
“We believe we have about a two year lead on anybody else, given that we launched for the first time in May of 2017,” Hoffman said.
Rocket Lab and other startups are products of a new league of venture capital organizations specializing in space investment. The company has been funded through five rounds totaling $288 million, according to Hoffman.
"We were funded well enough early on to get to orbit and then immediately start flying commercial customers," Hoffman said, adding by its third flight Rocket Lab was able to launch a paying customer and generate revenue.
Rocket Lab considered Cape Canaveral as a possible domestic launch site but decided on other locations because of the low conflict with air traffic, according to Hoffman. The company is currently building a launch site at NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia facility where they expect to begin launching by the end of this year.
The company manufactures most of the launch vehicle in California, but the rocket itself is assembled in New Zealand, said Morgan Bailey, communications director.
Hoffman showed News 6 firsthand how parts of the rocket's engine are made with 3-D printing.
"You get a very high, consistent build and print from part to part more so than traditional manufacturing methods," he said. "That allowed you to tread very complex parts."
The Huntington Beach facility has about 100 employees, Bailey said. The company has about 500, but it is growing rapidly at a rate of about five to 10 people per week.
As the market grows, Bailey said she expects the demand for employees will continue to increase. Eventually, Rocket Lab plans to step up its launch frequency to twice a month, then three times a month and so on until it becomes a weekly event, Hoffman said.
“It could be as often as airliners taking off and landing at major airports,” he said.
Rocket Lab has customers booked through the first half of 2020. For every launch, the company works with its customers to come up with a mission name that captures the imagination of the public, Hoffman said.
“It makes every launch a little bit different, a little bit unique so they’re more memorable,” Hoffman said. “After a while, we’re going to have a lot of launches. It’s going to be hard to keep track.”
The company also started a tradition at its California rocket part factory to celebrate its growing number of customers. Every time Rocket Lab gets a new customer, the team rings the bell that hangs from a post inside its headquarters.
According to Bailey, someone rings the bell about once a week.
Electron is next slated to launch from the Mahia Peninsula launchpad in August. Its most recent mission to launch, called Make It Rain, took flight on June 29.
“There’s people contacting us every day that want to jump on and launch and get to space,” Hoffman said.
With each mission complete, Hoffman said Rocket Lab learns from it “so every launch is a little bit better than the last launch.”
Click through the graphic below to learn more about the current spaceflight industry: