Rocket Lab belongs to the top private launcher companies globally. With 14 launches and 55 deployed satellites, the company is one of the most vibrant actors in the space launcher market. SpaceWatch.Global Editor-in-Chief Markus Payer got the chance to talk to Peter Beck, Founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, to discuss Rocket Lab’s ambitions to go to Venus, its strategy, vertical integration and fundamental questions of humanity.
Markus Payer: Venus missions have a long history, with the Soviet Union and the U.S. engaging since the 60’s and then Europe but also Japan racing to Venus. Why revive these efforts now and take Rocket Lab into Outer Space?
Peter Beck: You have to roll back history to when I was very young, probably a few years old. That was when my father took me outside and showed me a satellite and explained that it was built by humans. And I’m like cool, so all of these stars are built by humans? He says no, these are suns and they have planets around them. And there might be somebody just like you, asking the same question. And I’m like, okay, this is significant information here. And from that point on, there’s a question in my mind: Is life unique on earth? Or is it prolific within the universe?
And did you find the answer since?
As you look across our solar system, and in the absence of evidence right now, the only assumption you can draw is that life is unique to Earth. We have no evidence to the contrary. We have a lot of empirical data that says it’s possible, and if we look across our solar system, there’s three places that have the potential to be able to support some sort of life or historically have been able to support it.
Is Venus amongst these three places?
Life in the clouds of Venus is not new. That was hypothesized long time ago. As you say: Venus has a very long history. But I look back, and I am looking forward. And what I see is that Venus is relatively simple to get to (and I say relatively in giant quotation marks), but certainly a lot easier than some of the other potential destinations. It’s just something that we have to try, if we have the means to, and go. It’s just completely unacceptable to not try it.
When did Rocket Lab start to think about a Venus mission?
That’s really about two years ago. We had a PhD student, and I asked to see what interesting things we could do with our Electron rocket, if we made some assumptions and removed others. What kind of missions we could do, if we put a high energy kick stage or our Photon spacecraft on the top of our Electron rocket. And from that work came the idea that we could get small payloads to the Moon, and we could even get small payloads to Venus.
What were the next steps?
We were very lucky that the NASA Capstone mission came along. It was perfectly sized for us to take us to the Moon. So, as we are building the NASA Capstone mission, which launches early next year, we build a spacecraft that not only can deliver a payload to the Moon, but also to Venus. The differences are small. We made a lot of design decisions up front that are not really required for the Moon, but for Venus. We architected the spacecraft to take us there.
Is there a difference between a public agency doing such work and a private entrepreneur backed by private investors?
It is important. Prior to the discovery of phosphene in the atmosphere, Venus was of high scientific value, but less of a political destination. The only way to do such a mission was to do it privately. You obviously have to do it very affordably and move the barriers and change the ability we do planetary science. If you look at the way we do planetary science today, it’s typically one mission every decade, sometimes every two decades.
I don’t have 50 or 60 years to wait. I want to get this answered in my lifetime, now. It’s a burning question that I’ve had my entire life, and I think it’s one of the largest questions for our entire species. If you can find life in the atmosphere of Venus, you can pretty much conclude that life is not unique to Earth. And you can draw some reasonable assumptions that actually life is prolific throughout the universe. This is a completely different standing to where we are today, a major change in thinking.
You’re going for the big picture…
Yes, it is really born out of necessity. We have to go. We certainly hope that with the added interest in Venus, there will be more. But the important thing is to do it now, really affordably, and do it often and learn quickly.
Do you need public partners for your mission?
Of course, no doubt, we need public partners like NASA with the Deep Space Network to be able to communicate with the spacecraft and the probes. Our scientists are all coming from public institutions. But what we don’t need is public funding. The majority of the cost is shouldered by a private mission.
By private investors. What’s the business case for them?
If you look across the history of Rocket Lab, we tend to just go and do stuff, rather than making a big song and dance around it. I’m a firm believer that if you go and demonstrate to go to Venus for say $30 million, put a probe in the atmosphere and have a decent crack at looking for life, and certainly make some amazing scientific discoveries, and you compare that to multibillion dollar programs, the scientific value per dollar is enormous. I’m not as naive to think that I’m going to Venus once and answer this question. But we certainly demonstrate that it can be done. And we certainly hope that there will be a campaign of missions and that we will able to provide solutions for that campaign.
Is that what you explain to your investors, and are they buying into it? Is that the kind of return on investment they expect and accept?
Pretty much. You know, I think we’re developing important technologies that will be valuable. No doubt there’s a business case. However, it’s fair to say that across the boardroom table, there were some funny looks, when I pitched it. But then people found phosphine, and everybody’s going now. It all comes back to the fundamental belief that if you have the means and the ability to try and answer one of the largest questions of humanity, isn’t it your duty to try?
You were lucky, the recent detection of phosphide in the Venus atmosphere confirmed your vision. Did that put yourself in a Venus pole position?
I guess I don’t really think it like that. We’ve been going no matter what, so it’s just about doing what we think is right. It’s not a race, it is about increasing humanity’s knowledge. This is a win for all of us. And, you know, there’s many other destinations in our solar system, we have just such a tremendous amount to learn. So, I don’t really see it as a competition or a race or a pole position or anything like that. We are committed to going there, it’s desperately important to show that you can go and do something for some tens of millions of dollars.
What is it that we can learn from Venus?
It’s a relatively short time ago, sort of a billion years, that Venus had oceans and looked a lot like Earth. Earth’s sister has gone into a climate change runaway, and Earth is on that trajectory. There’s a lot we can learn.
Going back to your technology, could you explain what it took you, technically, to take Rocket Lab from LEO to Venus?
From the Electron kick stage and the Photon satellite, there wasn’t a lot of change, because we had designed the Photon as part of the rocket anyway. The difference between taking a Photon and putting it in LEO and going to the Moon or Venus, however, is a big step. There is a new generation of engine, a very high performance electric pumped engine with incredibly low mass, and a pretty crazy trajectory work. It takes us about eight, nine or ten orbits where we burn and raise apogees and perigees and finally get to escape velocity. It’s tricky. And then, within the spacecraft itself, you need to be able to determine accurately where you are in space, especially on such a long journey. You can do that with ranging radios, and we invested heavily into partnerships to bring the ranging radio technology in-house.
How long does it take you to go to Venus or close to Venus?
When we leave in May 2023, the transit is 160 days. If we left now, it would be a year and a half. Transit time and energy are at the lowest in 2023.
You’ve got launchpads, you’ve got a rocket, you’ve got a satellite, you are working on a totally vertically integrated system. How important is it to be independent from industrial suppliers and partners and do everything on your own?
We are trying to build a fully vertically integrated system, indeed. We acquire technologies and companies like Sinclair Interplanetary to bring those critical components in-house. The space supply chains are incredibly fragile. We can’t go to a customer and say we can solve your problem within months, if it takes 12 months to get critical components. What we are trying to do here is to lower the barriers. There’s nothing hard there. It’s just work.
Sounds so easy. But it’s like building cars and highways and, on top, offering the fuel. What makes that possible? Is it the mindset? Is there a technical secret sauce?
Firstly, it’s critical that you want to achieve being completely vertically integrated. If you want to own everything from the dirt on the ground of the launch site through to the systems that go into the satellite, it is critical to be able to execute against that. And then, the other thing is to be prolific, create a set of building blocks and standardized products and be able to quickly put them together. And then, you know, it is also about recognizing that this is not a solution for everything and everybody, it is a solution for a particular problem. Going to Venus is completely different from a Low Earth Orbit mission. And that’s just fine.
Talking about launchpads, an important element in your sequence. You’ve used Launch Complex One 14 times now, and you have installed Launch Complex Two in Virginia, but you haven’t used it yet. When are you going to use it?
We’re ready to go. There’s a vehicle there, but we have to wait for NASA to certify their software for us to be able to use our autonomous flight termination system. This is the first time we’re bringing autonomous flight termination to the Wallops range, and only the second vehicle in America that uses an autonomous flight termination system. So, there’s a lot of work to make sure that the range of software is compliant.
What potential launch cadence are you currently at?
At the moment, there’s a launch vehicle rolling off the line every sort of 30 days, and our best production rate at the moment is one rocket every 22 days. We continue to scale that, but also keep pace with the market and keep pace with the environment that we live in today. COVID certainly makes it much more challenging these days but that is the same for all of us, right? It’s important to do missions like the Venus mission, because that inspires the next generation of engineers and scientists. It is a critical thing to do.
SpaceWatch.Global thanks Peter Beck of Rocket Lab for the interview.