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Sir Peter Beck: Ambitions interplanetary and down-to-Earth

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04 June 2024, 10:01 PM

Sir Peter Beck: Ambitions interplanetary and down-to-EarthSir Peter Beck. Photo: Supplied / Rocket Lab via RNZ

Newly knighted Sir Peter Beck, founder of the multibillion-dollar company Rocket Lab, still has a couple more things he would like to achieve before his time on Earth is up.

One is to actually make it to university; the other is to find life on another planet.

"If we're talking about doing things that have to be done before you get put in a box in the ground, that's certainly one of them for me," he said of the latter, speaking to RNZ's King's Birthday Morning with Paddy Gower.

Listen: Sir Peter Beck our newest knight takes flight 

Beck this year was made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the aerospace industry, business and education.

In 2009, Rocket Lab's Ātea 1 became the first rocket in the Southern Hemisphere to reach space. Since then, the company has had dozens of successful launches, including for NASA, putting more than 160 satellites into orbit.


But the thrill of a successful launch for the Invercargill-born rocket enthusiast - who once rode a rocket-powered BMX he built himself down the streets of Dunedin at 160km/h - remains.

"We've done over 40 of them and the first one is just as tense as the 40th or 50th. They are incredible, choreographed engineering and scientific events and it's amazing that you get anything to space, to be honest with you. If you wrote all of the things that have to happen down on a piece of paper, you would largely assume that all of those things occurring perfectly would be improbable.

"So it's still an immense engineering achievement every single launch ... I think if you didn't [feel tense], then you don't understand what's going on."

Rocket men

Since 2009, Rocket Lab has ballooned into a US$2.1 billion company operating in three countries with about 2000 employees.

Its primary competitors are Blue Origin and SpaceX, run by Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Elon Musk (Tesla, X) - two of the richest people in the world.

"We're never gonna outspend them, so we have to have a high degree of cunning to be able to compete," Sir Peter said.

"And as of yet Blue Origin - Jeff's company - has yet to put something in orbit, so we're certainly well ahead on that metric.

"Elon is a very, very tough competitor. You know, [SpaceX] makes incredible strides and in incredibly short time frames and has for all intents and purposes, infinite capital. So, you know, we have to be very methodical and careful with the way that we compete with that.

"But we have a very large rocket that's in development that should launch mid next year, which we think is going to put us on an even keel there. So that will be exciting."

That is the Neutron - the follow-up to its groundbreaking low-cost Electron - which will compete with SpaceX's Falcon.

"The Falcon is, is a very established launch vehicle and, you know, somewhat of a monopoly in the launch industry and no monopoly ever survives the test of history.

"The Neutron is designed to compete directly with that. It's a 13,000kg to orbit launch vehicle. And to put that into context, you know, Electron lifts 320kg to orbit; Neutron, like I say, lifts 13,000kg to orbit, so a significant step up in scale there.

Elon Musk. Photo: AFP via RNZ

"And one of the advantages that we've had in perfecting Electron is there's a lot of functions of a launch vehicle that are kind of agnostic to the size of the vehicle. So for example, your flight safety team is no different in size compared to the size of the rocket. So some things scale and some things don't.

"So we've had to become ruthlessly efficient at doing the things that you have to do, but with much, much smaller teams and much more efficiency, and we think that, and the technology that we bring to Neutron, is going to create a very interesting competitive marketplace."

Not that he thinks Musk will be concerned.

"I don't think anything worries Elon. The wonderful thing about the space industry is there's tremendous respect amongst everybody who competes with each other because everybody knows how just incredibly hard it is to put anything [in orbit].

"But so although we all compete, we all kind of respect each other in what everybody does. So it's really nice in that sense."

Musk's reputation however extends beyond the space industry, the South African-born entrepreneur frequently making headlines for his erratic posts on social media. Sir Peter said in person, he is "just a guy like everybody else".

"If it wasn't for SpaceX, you know, the space industry wouldn't be where it is today and we wouldn't be where we are today because at the end of the day, you know, somebody needs to plough the field, and I think he's done a very good job of that."

Star wars

There has been criticism of Rocket Lab's ties to the US defence industry. The Green Party in 2022 criticised the company for delivering satellites into space that could, in theory, be used in warfare. At the time, Sir Peter said Rocket Lab would never "launch weapons or anything that damages the environment or goes and hurts people".

Speaking to Gower, Sir Peter said anything launched into space from New Zealand - where Rocket Lab operates its launches - needed to be signed off by the New Zealand Government.

"And look, we do live in a world that's unstable. Space infrastructure and defence infrastructure in orbit has always been critically important. And I think people forget that every time they order a pizza, they're absolutely reliant on the US military infrastructure in the form of GPS. So, a lot of infrastructure is dual use but, you know, absolutely necessary."

Rocket Lab so far has specialised in the actual rockets, not the spacecraft they're transporting or what is in them.

"It's kind of like saying to Mainfreight, 'You've delivered a parcel to a dock in California - is that parcel going to be used in a military operation?' Like, it is a transfer of custody and really that custody sits with the New Zealand Government."

Peter Beck in 2015. Photo: Rocket Lab via RNZ

Mission to Mars

As for transporting humans into space, Sir Peter said there was not really a lot of demand for that yet - considering there is not really anywhere to go, aside from the International Space Station.

"The thing with human space flight is there has to be a destination and there has to be a market, and right now there's one destination and you know, the market is well served. So until there's some space hotels or something like that up there, then you know, there's no real business impetus to go and build a capsule."

The company's current big mission is putting NASA's PREFIRE (Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment) satellites into orbit. They will "measure heat loss at far-infrared wavelengths which have never been systematically measured before", Rocket Lab said in May.

Sir Peter said it would "change the way we think about climate change and the climate change models".

"Another mission that we have that's launching later this year, we're building two spacecraft that are going to go to Mars fields around Mars.

"And although you might think, 'Well, that's a Martian mission.' Actually, this is super helpful to try and figure out what's happening in the ionosphere of Earth and how Earth's ionosphere may end up, you know, by looking at what Mars is today ."

Rocket Lab Mission Control Centre in Mt Wellington, Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Emma Stanford via RNZ

Signs of life

But it is an upcoming privately funded mission to Venus that Sir Peter appears most excited about.

"If you want to take the scientific approach, which is evidence-based, then currently we have no evidence at all to say that there is any other life in the universe other than us," he told Gower.

"Now practically and statistically speaking, I think that's unlikely. But, you know, one of the missions that we have - and it's a personal mission actually, it's a privately funded, Rocket Lab and others mission - is to go to Venus and search for life. Because at around about 50km in altitude in the clouds of Venus is an environment that is, in theory at least, possible to sustain life."

In 2020, a paper published in journal Nature Astronomy claimed there was evidence of phosphine in the clouds above super-hot greenhouse planetary neighbour Venus,

"Currently the only known way you can produce phosphine is kind of from organics," Sir Peter said.

"So this mission is, like I say, it's a nights and weekend mission that we hope to fly to Venus. We have a probe developed that will spend about 120 seconds reentering the atmosphere of Venus and with a nephelometer to try and search and get positive proof of phosphine or even better some kind of organics that would signify life…

"If it does determine that there is life in the clouds of Venus, then I think it's a pretty linear assumption you can make that actually, if life is in the clouds of Venus, then life is prolific throughout the universe."

From Southland to the stars

Despite all he has achieved, Sir Peter still calls New Zealand home - and despite starting life about as far away as one could from the established aerospace industry, he would not have it any other way.

"I fly a flag in the front yard very proudly. You know, New Zealand is an amazing country and New Zealanders are amazing.

"I've been lucky to travel the world and you would be amazed at how many cubicles that you see with a little New Zealand flag flying at the top. And they are very rarely some nobody engineer or something - they are often the people that are leading these things, and you can find Kiwis all throughout the world doing amazing things."

If there was one thing he could change about Aotearoa, it would be for Kiwis to dream bigger.

"Outside Rocket Lab, I do a lot with New Zealand venture capital and New Zealand start-ups. My biggest criticism is our entrepreneurs often don't think big enough. They think about solving problems on the New Zealand scale and perhaps the New Zealand-Australia scale, they're very rarely on the global scale.

"And so I think, you know, the one thing that I always try and impress on any New Zealand entrepreneur is it takes the same amount of pain and grit to build a little company as it does a big company. So you might as well just build a big company and go after the really big problems and solve global problems rather than, you know, necessarily smaller ones."

And while retirement is a long way off - Sir Peter still only in his 40s - he is considering using those years to do what most of his peers already did decades ago.

"Maybe when I retire I'll go back to university. That might be the right point in time."