The aerospace and space industries are traditionally dominated by huge companies and government-backed organisations, a situation reinforced by the huge amounts of upfront investment required to kick-start projects and win contracts.

While these sectors aren’t exactly an easy road for small-scale entrepreneurialism, a New Zealand-based company is proving things might be starting to change.

New Zealand, which has no space industry and little aerospace development to speak of, might seem an unlikely place to find a burgeoning aerospace start-up, but Auckland-based Rocket Lab, which grew out of its CEO and technical director Peter Beck’s school hobby, is demonstrating the surprising advantages that go along with operating under the radar.

The company grabbed the US aerospace industry’s attention in December 2009 with the successful launch of its research rocket Ātea-1, and an impressive list of contracts, including with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has followed.

The company now specialises in research and development contracts, bringing new innovations to areas like hybrid propulsion systems, sub-systems and composite materials. We talked to Beck about one of the aerospace industry’s most surprising recent success stories.

Chris Lo: Could you give some background on how Rocket Lab got started?

“We secured a research contract with DARPA in the US, which was fairly unusual given we were a foreign national.”

Peter Beck: Rocketry started off as a hobby; at school I was building small rocket motors.

Over the years, it just grew more complex and larger. It peaked at a point when I went to America for a month to do a bit of a rocket pilgrimage. I went and visited all of the big companies, the Lockheed Martins and Boeings and so on. It crystallised then that there was an opportunity to do something in the space sector in the southern hemisphere. So I came back, and at that time I was working for a government research lab. We focussed our efforts on sub-orbital rockets for scientific applications, formulated a bit of a business plan, secured some private equity investment and went out to build a sub-orbital rocket [Ātea-1] for the science community.

As that progressed through the development programme, it became more and more obvious that although that’s a valid market, it’s a very difficult one to tap into because of the long lead times. Ātea-1 ended up as a technology demonstrator to break ourselves into the US aerospace and space market.

If you turn up there with a powerpoint and talk about what you’re going to do, you’re not going to get any traction. We knew we had to do something pretty special to grab the attention of our customer. That’s when we really focussed on the Ātea-1 vehicle and we made sure to incorporate as much innovative technology as possible into the vehicle.

As a result the vehicle was quite unique, we developed new fuels, we did things that in the industry aren’t typically done – all carbon fibre shuttle composites; the amount of metallic components you could count on one hand; lineless pressure vessels; wireless range safety termination devices. All the things that are often talked about but never done.

Once we did that launch, we did a deal with the New Zealand media to distribute it through their international partners, and we got a minute on the BBC and a minute on CNN, so it went right through the US. That was our technology demonstrator, and we’re now able to turn up on company’s doorsteps, usually invited, and tell them “this is what we can do, this is what we are doing, and this is what we could do for you.”

CL: What have been your most significant technological breakthroughs?

PB: We formed a joint venture with a company in the US to commercialise some of our own proprietary technology around rocket-launched surveillance systems. These are surveillance systems that provide intelligence within seconds, as opposed to the current state of the art, which is within minutes or hours in some cases.

We also secured a research contract with DARPA in the US, which was fairly unusual given that we were a foreign national. Considering they are tasked with keeping the US defence force at the forefront of technology, they usually don’t like to do much outside the US. We can’t really talk about it in any detail, apart from to say it’s a new propulsion method, that’s the guts of it. We’re working with them at the moment to hopefully secure a follow-on contract from this first work.

CL: How had your December 2009 Ātea-1 rocket launch fed into your research since that time?

PB: It basically built capability within the company. The issue with being based in New Zealand is we’re really hampered by ITAR [international traffic in arms regulations].

“We’ve basically created all the capability in-house, so we don’t really need much externally.”

If you’re a rocket company, if you’re trying to buy something that’s going on a rocket it’s considered dual use, so you can’t buy it.

Thermal ablative coating is an excellent example. If you wanted to order a thermal ablative coating to protect your rocket from thermal loads, in the US you just pick up the phone, ring Dow Corning and it arrives. Here in New Zealand, that’s just not feasible because it’s ITAR-controlled, it’s specially developed for rockets, so there’s no way we’d even be able to get a hold of it.

In that instance, we read all the books, we read the patents to make sure we weren’t infringing them, and understood the chemistry and the science behind it, and just went out and developed our own. That goes for basically all of our technology; from establishing a launch range in New Zealand through to the thermal ablative coating, we’ve basically created all the capability in-house, so we don’t really need much externally.

CL: How is your research into hybrid rocket fuel progressing?

PB: The hybrid research was purely focussed on the Ātea-1 vehicle, because we didn’t want to build a boring old solid-fuel rocket; we wanted to do a new propulsion system that would gain attention. That was the reason and the drive behind the hybrid work. That work has given us grounding in traditional and non-traditional propulsion, so we’re able to leverage that to do the blue-sky stuff with the DARPA contracts. There’s less of a focus on environmental sustainability – it’s still a consideration – but there’s more of a focus on really new, innovative propulsion systems. But if you’ve got a propulsion system that uses 20% less propellant then environmentally that’s a good thing.

CL: Can you describe the experience of operating as a small company in a field dominated by huge organisations?

PB: The first thing I learnt in the US is that although it’s a massive industry it’s also tiny, in the respect that everybody knows everybody. You’ve got these multibillion dollar companies like Raytheon that have 72,000 employees, but once you get down to it, there’s a small, key group of people. We’re a new kid on the block at the moment, and the advantage of that is we’re not burdened with bureaucracy to start with.

We operate in a very simple framework, because New Zealand just doesn’t have the historical bureaucracy. That means we can do stuff so much faster than even the big companies. A good example of that is we’ve got a couple of launch ranges that we operate; with one of these launch ranges, we’ve had the airspace closed for pretty much the last four or five months. If you can get a window of a few hours in the US, you’re doing well, let alone just closing it for months. That gives us the ability to wander out of a lab at will and launch stuff and test. So our development times can be really fast.

CL: One of Rocket Lab’s aims is ‘to provide innovative low-cost solutions that enable public access to space’. How can this goal be achieved?

“We operate in a very simple framework, because New Zealand just doesn’t have the historical bureaucracy.”

PB: It comes down to one simple fact. Space is difficult; it’s challenging to get there and to stay there. However, building a nuclear reactor is equally challenging, building an iPhone is equally challenging in a lot of respects. My take on it is that there are a lot of examples in industry where the stakes are just as high if not higher, and the technology is just as complex, if not more complex.

The stuff that goes into consumer products every day that is hard to do. So it’s about bridging the gap and changing the mindset and convincing people that yes, space is difficult, but it doesn’t have to cost the price that it does.

Here’s an example. You can buy a space-qualified connector, just a plug, for DARPA, and it might cost you $5,000. It’s been qualified to fly into space and the production numbers are very low, hence the price. You can go into industry and buy a connector for $25 that’s used in industry for applications that are just as critical as the space connector, that’s been qualified for an industrial purpose. The difference is one is qualified for space and one is qualified for industry. They’re both equally good products, but one costs $25 and one costs $5,000.