Electron rockets and Rutherford engines

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

At 18, Peter Beck strapped a rocket engine to his bike. Now he’s taking on SpaceX, with smaller, even less expensive rockets:

In 2007, New Zealand’s government let Beck take over a floor, rent-free, at the lab where he’d been working. He now had access to high-end equipment, but he needed money to buy other gear. So he called Mr. Rocket — real surname, first name Mark — a wealthy internet entrepreneur and fellow Kiwi whom Beck had heard on the radio talking about his interest in space. Beck arrived at their meeting with a proposal to launch a cheap rocket every week. Rocket was intrigued enough to start making calls. “When I was pitching the idea to my lawyer and accountants, there were some raised eyebrows,” he says. “It seemed like an easy way to get rid of a bunch of money. But Peter had engines he could show me, and we shared the same vision.”

Beck raised $300,000 from Rocket and some family and friends, then spent two years building a prototype. In November 2009 he and two new hires unveiled the Atea-1 — a nod to the Maori word for space. He arranged to launch the 20-foot-long rocket, which weighed only 130 pounds, from a pad on Great Mercury Island, co-owned by a businessman named Michael Fay.


Since that first triumphant test, Rocket Lab has become a lean, accomplished builder. The company’s manufacturing facilities, a few low-slung warehouses in an industrial part of Auckland, have a giant assembly area for its Electron rockets and rooms where software engineers fine-tune its Rutherford engines, which are named after the New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford. Rocket Lab conducts engine tests a few miles away, in a patch of pasture near the Auckland airport. Things have gone awry on occasion — like the time a wayward igniter caused a bush fire that shut down the airport — but on the whole, the company has progressed much faster than typical aerospace startups. It has raised $148 million to build out its operations and is valued at more than $1 billion.

There’s a degree to which all viable rockets are the same: thin, metal tubes packed with as much explosive material as physics will allow. Rocket Lab’s primary innovation was to opt for carbon fiber over aluminum, which makes the Electron much lighter than competing models. It’s also much smaller — a sleek, black 56-by-4-foot shell with nine Rutherford engines at the base. SpaceX’s workhorse, the Falcon 9, is 230 feet tall and 12 feet across, and can take a 50,000-pound payload into low Earth orbit, compared with the Electron’s 500-pound limit. Rocket Lab charges just $5 million per flight, though, while SpaceX charges $60 million.

Beck’s goal of launching at least once a week is also more ambitious than SpaceX’s once a month. His target is made more plausible by an additional innovation: Rutherford engines are among the first to be almost entirely 3D-printed, which means more of their parts are fused together and don’t need to be assembled by hand. This lets Rocket Lab build engines practically at the press of a button.

The company will also be able to launch more frequently because it has a private facility — a rarity in the aerospace industry — on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Launch Complex 1 sits at the pointy edge of the Mahia Peninsula. The setting is stunning: a 26-by-26-foot launch pad, surrounded by the grasslands of the 10,000-acre sheep and cattle farm from which Rocket Lab leases its land. All of this is positioned atop a plateau that gives way to sheer, rocky cliffs that drop to a beach and open up to the turquoise ocean. Decades ago, Europeans and Americans had whaling stations here; during World War II, American troops practiced beach landings nearby.


That Peter Beck and New Zealand have been at the forefront of it all has been unlikely, to say the least. But Beck’s lack of formal training and his home country’s remoteness gave him a unique vantage from which to reimagine the rocket business.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    It uses kerosene and liquid oxygen for propellant. The LOX is held at low pressure, and pumps are require to raise the kerosene and LOX to pressures high enough to inject them into the combustion chamber. These pumps are driven by Li Ion batteries. The weight of the batteries is not discussed.

    Every interesting engineering detail is obscured.

  2. DNA says:

    Wow. No government, no globalism, no big brother, no collective. Imagine.

Leave a Reply