Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck discusses failed launch, NASA lunar mission

  • Rocket Lab, a company that launches small payloads into orbit, lost seven spacecraft in a launch on July 4.
  • Founder and CEO Peter Beck told Business Insider the failure was “graceful,” in that it provided large amounts of data to help narrow down and fix the problem.
  • “We’ll be back on the pad quickly. This is not going to set us back months or years,” he said.
  • Beck also opened up about Rocket Lab’s forthcoming Photon spacecraft, which is designed to send small instruments or satellites to the moon — or even Venus or Mars.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When Rocket Lab’s 13th space mission failed, it didn’t take long for CEO and founder Peter Beck to apologize to his customers and the masses.

The Pics Or It Didn’t Happen mission was supposed to propel seven satellites into orbit for three companies, and it lifted off aboard a six-story Electron rocket from a launch pad in New Zealand without issue. But late in the flight, the Electron’s upper-stage rocket failed, dooming the spacecraft for a fiery reentry back to Earth.

“Believe me, we feel and we share your disappointment,” Beck said in an apologetic 92-second video, which Rocket Lab shared via its Twitter account shortly after the failure on July 4. “However, we will leave no stone unturned to figure out exactly what happened today so that we can learn from it and get back to the pad safely.”

Business Insider recently caught up with Beck in an interview to catch up on the failure, the company’s ongoing investigation, its future launch plans, and a new business for Rocket Lab that Beck is most excited about.

Below are a few highlights from our conversation.

A communal respect for inevitable failure

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One of Rocket Lab’s carbon-fiber Electron launch vehicles lifts off from New Zealand.

Trevor Mahlmann/Rocket Lab

After Beck’s public apologies to Rocket Lab’s customers and fans, the company saw a rush of support from competitors, including Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tory Bruno of United Launch Alliance.

Beck described that support as “wonderful” and “one of the really unique things about the space industry.”

“You don’t get into this business and don’t expect to have a failure. The reality is that no launch vehicle in history has not failed,” Beck told Business Insider. “Everybody respects each other in the fact [of] how brutally hard it is. There’s just so many things that have to be absolutely perfect and, when one of them is not, it’s not like you can fix it on the way.”

He added: “Even though within the space community there’s a number of fierce competitors, when something bad happens to anyone, the whole industry feels that pain and just understands how difficult it is.”

‘This is not going to set us back months or years’

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One of Rocket Lab’s carbon-fiber Electron launch vehicles lifts is rolled out to its launch pad in New Zealand.

Rocket Lab

When asked about the status of the investigation and suspected causes, Beck said that it’s “too early to say” and that “it’s never one thing” that contributes to a failure.

“We’ve got to do the due diligence, to dig in and understand all the mitigating or contributing circumstances. But the good news is that it was a very graceful failure,” Beck said.

By “graceful,” Beck essentially means that the upper-stage rocket did not explode into pieces (and take crucial failure data with it).

Instead, the Electron’s single Rutherford rocket engine shut down and provided the company enough time to download a maximum amount of data before the launcher (and its payload) burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Engineers expect to conclude an investigation “in the next few weeks,” a spokesperson told Business Insider on Tuesday.

Beck said the company won’t launch again “until we fully understand the issue and it’s fully mitigated” and declined to say if, or when, Rocket Lab would pull together a re-do launch for the Pics Or It Didn’t Happen mission,

However, he promised the company’s Electron launcher will return to flight shortly. “We’ll be back on the pad quickly. This is not going to set us back months or years,” he said.

The reason for that is twofold, Beck added. “The [Electron] vehicle has a huge amount of flight heritage now,” he said, emphasizing the data gathered during 12 previous spaceflights. And given the data gathered from the failed mission, he noted, “we’re in the best possible way to understand that and return to flight quickly.”

Building a moonshot — and a new space business

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An illustration of Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft carrying NASA’s CAPSTONE mission. The $23.6 effort is slated to launch in 2021 and take 3 months to reach lunar orbit.

Rocket Lab

While Rocket Lab’s investigation presses on, the company is continuing to develop a new disk-shaped, single-motor spacecraft with solar cells and navigation hardware, called Photon, and — ideally — build a bold new business around it.

“We feel like launch is really a solved problem,” Beck said, noting Rocket Lab expects to open its third launch pad by the end of the year. “Production is continuing at full force and, every 20 days right now, more or less, a rocket comes off the production line. … The next piece to solve is the satellite piece.”

Creating spacecraft that are able to fly to and operate in high orbits around Earth, and especially at the moon, require enormous resources to execute. And that, he says, takes focus off why the mission is launching to deep space in the first place.

“There’s a tremendous amount of cost, effort, and time — years of time and tens of millions of dollars — that go into building the infrastructure piece of a satellite … and relatively small amount of time spent on the sensor or the capability that you’re actually trying to create,” Beck told Business Insider. “It’s important to remember the purpose of putting satellites in orbit is not to watch cool rocket launches and things like that. The purpose is the data or the service that you’re providing in space.”

He added: “That is the bit that yields value. Everything else is just parasitic. It’s just cost. So we’re trying to solve that problem next.”

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Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft (right) is designed to ride atop an Electron rocket’s second stage (left) and fly missions to high orbits and even the moon.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab envisions Photon as akin to an iPhone for small space missions: Customers can buy the ready-made high-tech platform (the phone in this analogy), allowing them to spend more effort on developing mission instrumentation and operations (the apps on the phone).

Photon can meet a spectrum of needs, Beck said. On one end, Rocket Lab builds an entire spacecraft and operates it for a client — they just tell the company what they want to achieve with it (within reason).

On the other end, he said is NASA’s robotic moon mission called CAPSTONE (short for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment”). In February, NASA awarded Rocket Lab a $9.95 million contract to fly the agency’s 55-lb, $13.7 million spacecraft aboard Photon. The mission is supposed to launch in 2021 and spend a few months winding its way into lunar orbit as a demonstrator for NASA’s upcoming crewed Artemis moon-landing program.

Beck said Photon could even send dozens of pounds’ worth of payload to Venus or even Mars if a customer wants.

“It’s such a powerful platform for people to experiment with and then utilize at its full force,” he said. “You don’t need to build a launcher. You don’t need to build a spacecraft. In fact, you don’t even need to develop your sensor — you can just give us a spec [specification] and we’ll do the whole thing. It’s a very different approach to the current state-of-the-art.”

Have a story or inside information to share about the spaceflight industry? Send Dave Mosher an email at [email protected] or a Twitter direct message at @davemosher. More secure communication options are listed here.

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