Last week, Rocket Lab launched its fifth Electron rocket, flying a dedicated mission for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to test a new type of antenna that can be packed tightly for stowage during launch, and then deployed to a full size of 2.25 meters in diameter once in space.
It was an important mission, because it allowed Rocket Lab to show the US government that it could support missions like this and validated the military’s desire to move toward smaller, faster-to-launch, and lower cost payloads for critical missions. “The Department of Defense has prioritized rapid acquisition of small satellite and launch capabilities,” Fred Kennedy, director of the defense agency’s Tactical Technology Office, said before the launch.
This mission means, definitively, that Rocket Lab has arrived as the first fully commercial player for private satellite, civil space, and defense launches in the small-satellite industry. This is the hottest area of the “new space” race, with dozens of companies large and small, in the United States, China, and around the world seeking to develop new rockets to serve the market of satellites weighing from a few kilograms up to about one or two tons. By some counts, there are now as many as 117 such efforts at varying degrees of advancement.
It is not clear how many of these efforts will survive, but there probably are a few “lanes” for these companies to fill. There is low-cost micro-launch, with rockets providing perhaps up to 50 or 100kg to low-Earth orbit; there is small launch, from 100kg to several hundred kilograms (this is where Rocket Lab’s Electron booster falls, with a capacity of 150kg); and then there are a bit bigger vehicles in the 800kg to 2 ton capacity range.
Most likely one, or at most two, US-based companies will survive in each lane, with additional internationals. For example, China’s government will likely support at least a couple of small-satellite launch companies as it seeks to match the US government’s capability for rapid deployment of space-based assets.
Rocket Lab’s chief executive, Peter Beck, now has a somewhat novel vantage point, because he has been through the wringer. His company, Rocket Lab, started earlier than most of the companies aspiring to launch small satellites, and it’s been a long road. Founded in 2006, the company spent 11 years getting to its first flight in 2017, and that was just the beginning of the struggle, he said.
“We’re in a unique position in that we’re the one company that’s gone through that for small launch,” Beck said in an interview with Ars. “If I look back, getting to orbit was kind of hard, but actually once you get to orbit the work’s not really done. Until you reach orbit, you’re really only thinking about yourself. The whole world revolves around your test flight. But when you start flying customers it’s a whole different world.”
After Rocket Lab completed its second test flight, in January 2018, the company did not fly again until November of last year, when it flew its first commercial mission. Rocket Lab underwent what Beck described as a “massive transformation” from a research-and-development company to a service company, and that took more than a year. Acquiring launch sites, building larger teams, finding capital for manufacturing facilities, moving from building a single rocket to building them in parallel, navigating the regulatory environment, and integrating customer payloads—that’s all just as hard or harder than getting to orbit, he said.
It was an expensive process, too, as Beck said Rocket Lab spent as much money from its founding to first launch, in 2017, as it has since then scaling its operations into March of 2019. This is a necessary step for Rocket Lab, and other competitors, who have based their long-term business models on dozens of launches a year, and the capability to get customers into space quickly.
Let’s get real
Beck still envisions a vibrant economy for the small-satellite launch industry, but he rolls his eyes when he sees pitches from some competitors to investors that include numbers like a trillion-dollar market, which assumes every possible constellation will launch its maximum number of satellites.
“The numbers seem to get bigger and bigger,” he said. “We’re a pretty conservative bunch, and when you take that kind of approach to satellites you end up at a point where there are really only enough for one or two small launch vehicles. I just don’t see hundreds of launches available for many, many companies. I’d expect some pretty decent consolidation over the next year to 18 months,“
It’s not clear what small launch companies will reach operational status next, and offer a challenge to Rocket Lab. Vector, Firefly, and Virgin Orbit have all talked about flying their rockets to space this year, and there are other, more-secretive companies such as Astra Space also nearing that threshold as well. Chinese start-up OneSpace, one of several semi-private efforts in that country talking about orbit in 2019, saw its first orbital attempt fail in March.
By contrast, Rocket Lab has a big lead, with five launches now, and a potential cadence of about one commercial flight a month for the rest of 2019. As he watches his competitors, Beck says he can get a good idea of how far the companies are coming along. “If they’re making a big song-and-dance about engine tests, you know they’re miles away,” he said. Even full stage tests, he says, is an indication that they’re a long way away. There’s just so much work—and after reaching orbit, he would argue, the hard work of transformation has just begun.