Peter Beck with his Electron rocket in Auckland yesterday. Photo NZ Herald
From a 140kmh rocket bike in Dunedin to the verge of a
''billion-dollar space industry'', Peter Beck has always been
a man in a hurry.
The man leading New Zealand's space programme cut his teeth
racing a steam-powered rocket bike along Princes St, in
Southland-born Mr Beck (37) heads Rocket Lab, an
Auckland-based venture that is building a world-first launch
vehicle to make it cheaper to send satellites into orbit.
The carbon-composite rocket will cost less than $US5 million
($NZ5.84 million), compared with the average price to send a
satellite to space of $133 million.
Mr Beck, whose company has been backed by top-tier Silicon
Valley company Khosla Ventures and Stephen Tindall's K1W1 and
received a $25 million grant from the Government, yesterday
revealed a model of the rocket.
It is a far cry from his experimental days in Dunedin, when
he started dabbling in rocket power after starting a tool and
die-making apprenticeship at Fisher and Paykel.
''I'd be trying to build a piece of my rocket and I'd go into
the engineering store and say to Trevor, 'Hey Trev, can you
get us a price for a piece of titanium, say yay by yay?' And
he'd say 'Yeah, no problems, Pete'.
''And a couple of days later a piece of titanium would just
arrive in my tool box labelled 'apprentice training project'.
''And that just went on and on and on at Fisher and Paykel,''
Mr Beck told the Otago Daily Times in 2009.
Mr Beck ended up building a steam-powered rocket bike, which
he demonstrated to the board of Fisher and Paykel in the
company car park.
''I'd lie down on it, essentially lie right down on it, with
the propellant bottles between my legs.
''The only way I could get the centre of gravity low enough
was to use BMX wheels.''
He also demonstrated the bike's power at Dunedin's Festival
of Speed about 2000, accelerating down Princes St from zero
to 140kmh in just under five seconds.
''It was quite funny, because I couldn't apply the BMX brakes
because the surface speed of the wheels was just too high and
the brake pads just melted.
''You had to sit up and let the wind slow you down for a bit
and then you could start applying the brakes.''
Fourteen years later, Mr Beck said his company had 30
commitments from companies around the world seeking cheaper
ways to send satellites to space.
''The obvious ones ... are earth imaging and weather
He was looking at rural locations for a launch pad.
''New Zealand is optimally placed for doing this,'' he said.
''We're a small island nation in the middle of nowhere. We
don't have heavy air traffic and we don't have heavy marine
and shipping. That means we can launch to space very
frequently and very rapidly.''
Mr Beck said the company would create a billion-dollar
The engines in the Electron rocket have been named
''Rutherford'', Mr Beck said, after New Zealand scientist
''Because they're not big, they're really, really smart.''
Mr Beck said he was ''reversing the brain-drain'' and was
advertising for 30 positions for rocket scientists.
''We're sucking in rocket scientists left, right and
On a trip to the United States in 2007, he realised the big
aerospace companies were not meeting demand.
He came up with the name Rocket Lab and began his mission to
make space more accessible.
Two years later, the company was the first private company in
the southern hemisphere to reach space. He said he had always
been interested in space as a child, and had a message for
Kiwi 5-year-olds who want to reach space: ''Study your maths,
study your physics, and come work for us.''