Future Tech

50 launches, 1 knighthood – Rocket Lab CEO talks heavy-lift rockets, Venus, and Musk

Tan KW
Publish date: Wed, 19 Jun 2024, 07:27 PM
Tan KW
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Future Tech

Interview Rocket Lab will hit the 50th launch milestone for its Electron rockets this week but will miss a hoped-for late 2024 date for its first Neutron launch.

"It's always propulsion," says CEO Sir Peter Beck in an interview with The Register. "Propulsion's always the long pole."

"We could have put something on the test stand earlier, but that would have been a simplified prototype or something like that. We took a little bit longer to make sure we put the engine there that we intend to fly, but I'd say propulsion is always the long pole in the tent."

Beck said something similar during an earnings call on May 6, when it was confirmed that the first launch of Neutron had been delayed to the middle of 2025.

According to Beck, the surprise with the Archimedes engine was not the engineering involved but the time it took to "stand up all the elements to support production." A milling machine that used to take three months to arrive ended up taking 18. Just getting enough concrete to construct the launch pad presented a challenge.

The Neutron is Rocket Lab's reusable heavy-lift rocket. Aimed at the mega-constellation market, it will be capable of launching 13,000 kg to Low Earth Orbit or 1,500 kg to Mars or Venus, dwarfing the company's existing Electron, which can send 300 kg to Low Earth Orbit. The Neutron's first stage will be powered by nine Archimedes engines and a single Archimedes engine for the second stage.

Unlike Electron, Neutron will initially only be launched from the company's Wallops Island facility in Virginia, USA. While the choice of location will doubtless please some customers, Beck gives a far more prosaic reason for launching the Neutron from Wallops rather than the company's New Zealand complex: "The challenge there is we can take all the liquid oxygen that is produced in New Zealand and half-fill the tank once. There's just not the industrial base to support such a machine."

Unsurprisingly, Beck reckons the Neutron directly competes with SpaceX's Falcon 9. "There is a number of customers, both government and commercial, who are really looking for a balance in the market against the Falcon 9. We aim to bring that balance to that market."

That said, Neutron is not the only competition SpaceX is about to face in the US. Although it is not reusable, ULA's Vulcan finally made its maiden launch. Blue Origin's first launch of its New Glenn, the first stage of which will be reusable, is also imminent. However, Beck reckons that the market is more than big enough, particularly considering the expected low cadence of some of the entrants. As well as regular payloads, Beck says "there is also a large number of constellations coming to market that require a launch, both commercial and government."

However, Rocket Lab faces a challenge getting close to SpaceX's current cadence, although Beck is quick to highlight the 50-launch milestone. "You know, Electron has gotten there faster than any other commercially developed rocket, which is a great accomplishment by the team."

An accomplishment indeed, but there have been some unfortunate incidents scattered around that 50. The Falcon 9 can launch considerably more mass than the Electron, the first stage is reusable (whereas bits of the Electron can be reused after they're reclaimed from the ocean), and Musk's rocketeers have managed well over 50 Falcon 9 launches so far this year alone.

"Elon's a little bit of an anomaly," says Beck, "because he creates his own demand with the mega-constellation ... If you took away Starlink, then that's 90 percent of SpaceX's cadence."

Beck's figure is a little high, but his reasoning is sound. Without Starlink launches, SpaceX's cadence would be considerably lower.

That said, Beck has his own passion project - the mission to Venus -which, as a "spare time" project, suffered as the company ramped up operations.

There are launch windows in 2025 and 2026, and the project is philanthropically funded. According to Beck, Rocket Lab's contribution accounts for 90 percent of the project. "We all want to go there," he says, "but we all have day jobs."

Surely the company's investors wouldn't mind a bit of work on something that is exploration for exploration's sake, considering the work appears to be rolling in?

Beck laughs: "I wish it was ... Man, if it was that simple, it would be awesome. One plus one equals two. That'd be great.

"But there's so many things ... that affect share prices. And look - I think all eyes are on Neutron. It's really important to get that to the pad and show good progress there."

The market, he says, remains a tough place. And as for that balance Beck mentioned? "If we're honest, it's going to come down to the Falcon 9 and the Neutron.

"No kind of monopoly survives the test of history and there will always be a balancing force brought on the market. And, yeah, I think that we're in a good position to do that." ®

 

https://www.theregister.com//2024/06/19/rocket_lab_peter_beck_interview/

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