2015: Rocket Lab's New Zealand space odyssey

Peter Beck's start-up scores international funding to get his rocket into space later this year

It’s more than one small step for man; it’s one giant leap for a company that’s about to head into space – from right here in New Zealand.

Auckland-based Rocket Lab has developed a space travel prototype that, put simply, will send satellites into orbit on the back of a rocket called the Electron.

Today the New Zealand company announced that global venture capital investors Bessemer Venture Partners (BVP) and Lockheed Martin will be joining existing stakeholders Khosla Ventures and Sir Stephen Tindall’s K1W1 investment fund to make the dream a reality by the end of 2015.

Rocket Lab CEO and 2015 NZ Innovator of the Year Peter Beck relishes the opportunity to work alongside such world-class investors.

“When we launch the first flight at the end of the year, New Zealand will become only the ninth nation in the history of the planet – and only the second commercial company – to have ever put something in orbit,” he says.

“Bessemer Venture Partners and Lockheed Martin are two enormous powerhouses globally, so having those guys on the team is really a validation of the opportunity we have in front of us.”

Beck didn’t reveal exact investment figures but he did say the types of companies BVP and Lockheed Martin have invested in before, like Pinterest, LinkedIn, Shopify and Skype, give you an indication of the scale of this one.

“They’re not investors who invest in little projects. These are the tier-one guys who look to invest in multi-billion dollar opportunities, and that’s certainly what we hope this will be.”

But it’s not just about financial return.

“[BVP and Lockheed Martin] like stuff that’s totally disruptive, things that have the potential to have a huge impact – not just financially but also for humanity,” says Beck.

“Think of it like before there were aeroplanes,” he adds. “Commerce and trade were pretty difficult. It’s the same sort of thing. We’ve commercialised the air, we’ve commercialised the sea, now it’s time to commercialise space.”

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck

Sending a satellite into space isn’t as simple as strapping it onto a rocket and hoping for the best, though. At $4.9 million per rocket, the Electron system isn’t cheap – but it’s exponentially more affordable than international equivalents which average a whopping $132 million each. Rocket Lab hopes to lower the cost of production of satellite launch vehicles and therefore make it easier to produce more of them so they can “get lots of satellites up there and do really cool stuff.”

Thanks to a growing global reputation, Rocket Lab has more than 30 launches on the books – before they’ve even made it to the final frontier once. To keep up with demand, Rocket Lab is now on the hunt for at least 35 rocket scientists to join their 30-odd strong team of scientists and engineers from all over the world including Germany, Spain and the US. Roles range from engineers to technicians, right through to people who just want to be involved in the kind of adventure childhood dreams are made of.

“We’ve been really lucky because the project attracts a high-talented calibre kind of person,” says Beck. “At one end of the spectrum we’re looking for someone with 25 years’ experience in liquid propulsion injector systems which is hugely specialised, right down to a guy to drive around town picking stuff up for us,” says Beck.

“Rocket Lab currently has an incredibly diverse and experienced team from all over the globe, and we’re hoping to add to it with some home-grown Kiwi engineers and technicians. New Zealanders have the uncanny ability to innovate and are incredibly strong problem solvers, and these are the people we’re looking for.”

“The one thing that runs through everyone who works here is that they’re really passionate people who are really excited about what we’re trying to achieve.”

Rocket Lab is planning to launch the Electron into orbit from an undisclosed New Zealand location in December 2015. To see the full range of rocket scientist jobs available, check out their website.