A New Zealand-based rocket developer aiming for a $5 million per launch price tag wants to eventually set up a United States-based launch facility so he can compete for Defense Department contracts.

Peter Beck, founder of Rocket Lab, is building a rocket with a goal of providing access to low-earth orbit (LEO) at $5 million per launch for payloads weighing up to 100 kg. Known as Electron, the company is building what it calls the world’s first carbon-composite launch vehicle at its Auckland, New Zealand, facility, according to a company statement.

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck and his Electron rocket. Photo: Rocket Lab.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck and his Electron rocket. Photo: Rocket Lab.

Electron is 18 meters in length, one meter in diameter and will weigh more than 10 tons. Beck told Defense Daily in a recent interview Electron was designed with a clean sheet approach to structural margins and thrust with control authority.  Rocket Lab, Beck said, is developing everything “in house.”

Beck said his approach differs from fellow commercial space transportation provider Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) in that Rocket Lab is not focused on cost per kilogram, but providing regular access to space in a “commercially-responsive manner.” Rocket Lab’s goal, Beck said, is launching every week.

“Although a Falcon 9, for example, has a much lower cost-per-kilogram basis than we do, the reality is you have to go out and raise a minimum of $60 million capital if you want to actually go, buy and use their vehicle,” Beck said.

SpaceX’s 2016 launch price point of $61.2 million to get a payload as heavy as 13,150 kg into LEO would be, at the most, $4,654 per kg. Beck’s rocket, at $5 million for as heavy as 100 kg, would be $50,000. LEO is about 160-2,000 km above the earth’s surface. Rocket Lab would be able to develop cost savings by reducing the lead time for businesses to launch a satellite from two years down to weeks through vertical integration in Rocket Lab’s private launch facility in New Zealand.

In addition to weekly launches, Beck said he wants to be able to launch “90 percent of the time” through various weather conditions. Rocket Lab, Beck said, took 20 years of weather data from its launch ranges and used it to drive the rocket’s design.

“If you don’t launch once a week, you can’t scrub a launch because it’s a little bit windy or a little bit rainy,” Beck said.

Though Beck said Rocket Lab is a United States company incorporated in Delaware, he said the company is basing its operations in New Zealand due to its private launch facility located on the small island nation located southeast of Australia. Beck said the company spoke with ranges in the United States, but he said no one could match his price point for weekly launches, so he stuck with New Zealand.

Beck said having a New Zealand launch facility can be advantageous because it is a tiny island nation with “nothing around” and it provides easy access to sun-synchronous orbit. A sun-synchronous orbit crosses over the equator at approximately the same local time each day and night, allowing for consistent scientific observations with the angle between the sun and earth’s surface remaining relatively constant. This is appropriate as Beck said Rocket Lab is shooting for the small satellite market, much of which is comprised by smaller satellites.

Though Rocket Lab’s main funder is Silicon Valley venture firm Khosla Ventures, Beck declined to say how much the firm has invested in Rocket Lab. Beck said Rocket Lab has about 30 commitments with customers ranging from large aerospace contractors to Silicon Valley start-ups.

Rocket Lab in the past signed contracts with Lockheed Martin [LMT], Aerojet Rocketdyne and the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Though Rocket Lab isn’t pursuing DoD contracts at the moment, Beck said the company has good ties with DoD and will pursue setting up a launch operation in the United States to serve DoD customers.

“We clearly understand the need, from a defense point of view, for a rapid and responsive, low-cost access to orbit for a variety of national security reasons,” Beck said. “So that would be the fundamental reason why we would establish a U.S. launch operation, (to) service those clients who don’t necessarily want to (launch) overseas.”

The Electron project has been running for a year in the dark, Beck said. Rocket Lab’s liquid oxygen (LOX)/kerosene propellant engine is “quite mature,” Beck said, and is test firing “very frequently.” Beck also called Electron’s tanks, structures, avionics and guidance “very mature.” With all the major systems qualified, Beck said Electron is going through a very large reliability and testing program and is about to assemble stages and do all of the company’s system tests.

Beck said one major test coming up is an all-out, five second static test where all of the systems are integrated onto the second stage and run as a complete system. Following that, Beck said there’s a first stage static test and then test flight of Electron.

“We’re looking for first flight about this time next year,” Beck said.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is a division of GenCorp [GY].