Throughout our history, humanity has ventured to new shores to prosper, be it to trade, farm, dig for gold or drill for oil. To the entrepreneurs amongst us, new frontiers mean new resources, new needs, and new opportunities for business. Since long before Neil Armstrong’s small step for man, we have written and dreamed about venturing to that – dare I say it? – “final frontier.” Yet, as with all developing technologies, the cost of space travel has presented a barrier to new companies, keeping access exclusive to large space agencies with the funds and resources to reach it.
However, the entrepreneurial mind cannot be told no forever, and where demand exists, someone will answer it. Enter Rocket Lab, an independent manufacturer of space travel solutions, based in the USA and New Zealand.
Much of the cost of space travel comes from breaking the Earth’s atmosphere. Upon reaching open space, passenger-less vessels can navigate and work with (relatively) little difficulty. However getting them there is the challenge, because it requires construction of a rocket, or securing one of the highly sought-after spots in the cargo of scheduled flights.
Currently, a place on a flight can involve a long wait, a competitive pitch or, if looking for a private service, a good US$50 million! Since 2006, Rocket Lab has worked to provide a range of space travel systems and technologies, but its latest invention, Electron – a 3D printed rocket that the company has designed from scratch – could well change the face of space travel.
From Warp drives to H G Well’s ‘anti-gravity paint’, fiction has devised a range of colourful methods for space travel to become an every-day part of human life. To travel back to before we were used to the term, a 3D printed rocket would sound just as fantastical – yet Electron is real and it works, adding to the ever-growing and impressive list of 3D printing’s life-changing products.
Electron lifted off from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand location on May 25th, 16:20 NZST, and was the first orbital-class rocket launched from a private launch site in the world.
“Our focus with the Electron has been to develop a reliable launch vehicle that can be manufactured in high volumes,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and chief executive in a statement. “Our ultimate goal is to make space accessible by providing an unprecedented frequency of launch opportunities.”
Domestic flights must be re-scheduled whenever a rocket is launched, which slows down the frequency possible in America. For this reason, Rocket Lab’s focus has been on New Zealand, and once up and running, the company predicts that they will be able to provide 120 launches a year. The country is so confident in Rocket Lab’s work that they have created new rocket legislation and set up a space agency in anticipation of becoming a low-cost space hub.
These launches will allow companies to book space for their cheap-to-build payloads with relative regularity and ease. A ‘payload’ is often a smaller vessel, unable to launch itself into space, but able to power itself once there (a much easier task with zero resistance). Daniel Faber, CEO of Deep Space Industries, describes their payload vessels as “space kettles,” which, in order to be safe and welcome cargo, are powered by water instead of highly explosive fuel, propelling themselves through space using small bursts of steam.
Once there, these marvellous little creations can serve a range of functions, be it to deliver fuel or supplies to satellites, monitor data or, as is the plan for many start-ups, mine minerals from the moon and nearby asteroids.
“It has been an incredible day and I’m immensely proud of our talented team,” said 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.”
Although Electron entered space effortlessly, her test payload didn’t quite make it into orbit on her maiden flight. However, over the coming weeks, Rocket Lab’s engineers in Los Angeles and New Zealand will work through the 25,000 data channels collected during the flight, and the company are confident for success on their second launch.
“We have learnt so much through this test and will learn even more in the weeks to come. We’re committed to making space accessible, and this is a phenomenal milestone in that journey.”