With the commercial space race heating up, a U.S.-New Zealand aerospace firm has achieved a notable milestone, becoming the first to launch an orbital-class rocket into space from a private launchpad.
Rocket Lab‘s Electron rocket launched from the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island at 16:20 local time on May 25 (21:20 PT, May 24). While the rocket did reach space, it failed to reach orbit.
There were no media or spectators in attendance, but the company posted this video to Twitter:
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLabUSA) May 25, 2017
Founded out of California in 2006 by New Zealander Peter Beck, Rocket Lab is setting out to expedite the delivery of small, private satellites into space by offering a weekly launch service — an alternative to the current schedule, whereby satellite companies essentially thumb a ride from big rockets already going into space.
The company raised $75 million just a few months ago, with Beck telling VentureBeat at the time: “Over the past few years, America has gone to space between 18 to 20 times a year on average. That includes all launch service providers combined.” Beck said that his startup would be able to carry out around 60 percent of those payloads.
Rocket Lab hasn’t given a specific date for when it expects to begin operating commercially, but when it does, the company said it expects to launch more than 50 times annually, though it’s regulated to carry out as many as 120 launches. For context, there were 82 rocket launches globally in 2016.
The New Zealand test flight wasn’t carrying any cargo, but Rocket Lab’s engineers will use data from the trip to “optimize the vehicle” ahead of its commercial launch.
“It was a great flight — we had a great first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition, and fairing separation,” said Beck. “We didn’t quite reach orbit, and we’ll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our program, deliver our customers to orbit, and make space open for business.”
Just yesterday, the Founders Institute announced a new program that offers training and mentorship to entrepreneurs looking to launch space-related companies. And a number of private technology firms are already locking horns as they look to capitalize on commercial space flight. These include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
But where Rocket Lab is looking to find its niche is in small-scale satellite deliveries, offering companies a cheaper conduit to get their devices into orbit. By way of example, Rocket Lab’s Electron is only 17 meters long and can carry a maximum payload of 225kg, while SpaceX’s Falcon is around 70 meters long and can carry around 23,000kg.
“It has been an incredible day and I’m immensely proud of our talented team,” continued Beck. “We’re one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years. We’ve worked tirelessly to get to this point. We’ve developed everything in house, built the world’s first private orbital launch range, and we’ve done it with a small team.”
Following its inaugural flight, Rocket Lab will carry out two more test flights later this year, with plans to reach orbit on its second voyage.