Archives

Written by Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck explains why the company needs a bigger rocket, and why it’s going public to build it

Rocket Lab packed a ton of news into Monday to kick off this week: It’s going public via a SPAC merger, for one, and it’s also building a new, larger launch vehicle called Neutron to support heavier payloads. I spoke to Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck about why it’s building Neutron now, and why it’s also choosing to go public at the same time. Unsurprisingly, the two things are tightly linked.

“We have the benefit of flying Electron [Rocket Lab’s current, smaller launch vehicle] for a lot of customers. and we also have a Space Systems Division that supplies components into a number of spacecraft, including some of the mega constellations,” Beck told me. “So we have very strong relationships with, with a lot of different customers, and I think we get unique insight on where the industry is going, and where the where the pain points are.”

Those pain points informed Neutron, which is a two-stage reusable rocket. Rocket Lab already broke with Beck’s past thinking on what the launch market needed by developing partial reusability for Electron, and it’s going further still with Neutron, which will include a first-stage that returns to Earth and lands propulsively on a platform stationed at sea, much like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. But the market has shifted since Rocket Lab built Electron – in part because of what it helped unlock.

“The creation of Neutron came from from two discrete factors: One, the current need in the marketplace today. Also, if you project it forward a little bit, you know, Neutron will deliver the vast majority – over 90% of – all the satellites that, that are around or in some form of planning. And if you look at those satellites, 80% of them are mega constellations, by volume. So, in talking with, with a bunch of different customers, it was really, really apparent that a mega constellation-building machine is what the market really needs.”

Beck says that combining that market needs with a historical analysis that showed most large launch vehicles have taken off half-full resulted in them arriving at Neutron’s 8 metric ton (just over 17,600 lbs) total cargo mass capacity. it should put it in the sweet spot where it takes off full nearly every time, but also can still meet the mass requirement needs of just about every satellite customer out there, both now and in the future.

“We’re covered in scars and battle wounds from the development of Electron,” “The one thing that that Elon and I agree on very strongly is, by far the hardest part of a rocket is actually scaling it – getting to orbit is hard, but actually scaling manufacturing is ridiculously hard. Now, the good news is that we’ve been through all of that, and manufacturing ins’t just as product on the floor; it’s ERP systems, quality systems, finance, supply chain and so on and so forth. So all that infrastructure is is built.”

In addition to the factory and manufacturing processes and infrastructure, Beck notes that Electron and Neutron will share size-agnostic elements like computing and avionics, and much of the work done to get Electron certified for launch will also apply to Neutron, realizing further cost and time savings relative to what was required to get Electron up and flying. Beck also said that the process of making Electron has just made Rocket Lab extremely attuned to costs overall, and that will definitely translate to how competitive it can be with Neutron.

“Because electron has a $7.5 million sticker price, we’ve just been forced into finding ways to do things hyper efficiently,” he said. “If you’ve got a $7.5 million sticker price, you can’t spend $2 million on flight safety analysis, payload environmental analysis, etc – you just can’t do that. With a $60 or $80 million vehicle that you can amortize that. So we’ve kind of been forced into doing everything hyper, hyper efficiently. And it’s not just systems; it includes fundamental launch vehicle design. So when we apply all of those learnings to nNutron, we really feel like we’re gonna bring a highly competitive product to the marketplace.”

As for the SPAC merger, Beck said that the decision to go public now really boils down to two reasons: The first is to raise the capital required to build Neutron, as well as fund “other” projects. The other is to acquire the kind of “public currency” to pursue the kinds of acquisitions in terms of business that Rocket Lab is hoping to achieve. Why specifically pursue a SPAC merger instead of a traditional IPO? Efficiency and a fixed capital target, essentially.

“We were actually sort of methodically stepping towards an IPO at the time and, we were just sort of minding our own business, but it was clear we were pursued very vigorously by a tremendous number of potential SPAC partners,” Beck told me. “Ultimately, on the balance of timelines, this just really accelerated our ability to do the things we want to do. Because, yes, as you pointed out, that this kind of streamlined the process, but also provided certainty around proceeds.”

The SPAC transaction, once complete will result in Rocket Lab having approximately $750 million in cash to work with. One of the advantages of the SPAC route is that how much you raise via the public listing isn’t reliant on how the stock performs on the day – Beck and company know and can plan on that figure becoming available to them, barring any unexpected and unlikely barriers to the transaction’s closing.

“Having all the capital we need, sitting there ready to go, that really sets us up for a strong execution,” he said. “If you look at Rocket Lab’s history, we’ve only raised spend a couple of hundred million dollars to date, within all the things we’ve done. So capitalizing the company with $750 million – I would expect big things at that point.”


Early Stage is the premiere ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear firsthand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in — there’s ample time included in each for audience questions and discussion.


Satellite constellation operator Spire Global to go public via $1.6 billion SPAC

Monday brings with it not one, but two space SPACS – there’s Rocket Lab, and there’s Spire Global, a satellite operator that bills itself primarily as a SaaS company focused on delivering data and analytics made possible by its 100-plus spacecraft constellation. SPACs have essentially proven a pressure-release valve for the space startup market, which has been waiting on high-profile exits to basically prove out the math of its venture-backability.

Spire Global debuted in 2012, and has raised over $220 million to date. It will merge with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) called NavSight Holdings, in order to make a debut on the NYSE under the ticker ‘SPIR.’ The combined company will have a pro forma enterprise value of $1.6 billion upon transaction close, which is targeted for this summer.

The deal will provide $475 in funds for the company, including via a PIPE that includes Tiger Global, BlackRock and Hedosophia. Existing Spire stockholders will wind up with around 67% of the company after the businesses combine.

Spire’s network of satellites is designed to provide customers with a ‘space-as-a-service’ model, allowing them to operate their own payloads, and access data collected via an API their developers can integrate into their own software. The model is subscription-based, and is designed to get customers up and running with their own space-based data feed in less than a year from deal designs and commitment.

Existing investors in Spire Global include RRE Ventures, Promus Ventures, Seraphim Capital, Mitsui Global Investment and more, with its most recent round being a raised of debt financing. The company has launched satellites via Rocket Lab, its companion in the Monday SPAC news rush. The satellites it operates are small cube satellites, and it has launches on a wide range of launch vehicles, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9, the Russian Soyuz, ISRO’s PSLV, Japan’s H-2B, ULA rockets, Northrop Grumman’s Antares and even the International Space Station.

Spire got its start from very humble origins indeed – tracing all the way back to a Kickstarter campaign that was successful with just over $100,000 raised from backers.

Rocket Lab debuts plans for a new, larger, reusable rocket for launching satellite constellations

Because news of its SPAC-fueled public market debut wasn’t enough, Rocket Lab also unveiled a new class of rocket it has in development on Monday. The launch vehicle, called Neutron, will be able to carry 8 metric tons (around 18,000 lbs) to orbit, far exceeding the cargo capacity of Rocket Lab’s current Electron vehicle, which can host only around 660 lbs. Neutron will also have a fully reusable first-stage, designed to launch on an ocean landing platform, not unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster.

Rocket Lab says that Neutron will be designed to service increased demand from customers launching large multi-satellite constellations. The heavier lift will mean that it can take more small satellites up at one time to get those constellations in orbit more quickly. Its cargo rating also means it should be able to deliver up to 98% of all currently-forecasted spacecraft launching through 2029, according to Rocket Lab, and provide resupply services to the International Space Station. Rocket Lab also says it’ll be capable of human spaceflight missions, indicating an ambition to make it the company’s first human-rated spacecraft.

Neutron could significantly expand Rocket Lab’s customer base, and it’ll also improve costs and economics vs. what Electron can do now, thanks to a design focus don efficiency and reusability. The rocket will launch from Rocket Lab’s Wallops, Virginia facility, and since there’s already a launch pad in place for it, the company expects it’ll be able to fly Neutron for the first time by 2024. In addition to its LA-based HQ and the Wallops launch site, Rocket Lab anticipates it’ll be building a new Neutron production facility somewhere in the U.S. to build the new rocket at scale.

While it won’t have the launch capacity of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, it’s still intended to be a rocket that can also carry smaller payloads to the Moon and even deep space beyond. The medium-lift category in general is generating a lot of interest right now, given the projections in the amount and variety of constellations that both private and public organization are expected to put into orbit over the next decade. Constellations are offering advantages in terms of cost and coverage for everything from communications to Earth observation. Another rocket startup, Relativity Space, just unveiled similar plans for a larger launch vehicle to complement its first small rocket.