Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck reveals details of second retrieval mission, dismisses IPO ‘ambulance chasers’

Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck has revealed more details of his company’s second rocket retrieval mission – which could be as soon as Saturday when a 10-day launch window opens – and told media that everything is on track for his company’s US$4.1 billion ($6b) Nasdaq listing in the second quarter.

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The listing will be through a merger with Cayman Islands-incorporated Vector Acquisition, an example of the spac (special-purpose acquisition company or “blank cheque company”) phenomenon that has recently become de rigueur for tech listings in the US because, in the manner of a reverse listing,it eases red tape, and lowers costs and disclosure thresholds.

At least two US law firms have announced “investigations” into Vector and “possible breaches of fiduciary duties and other violations of law” related to its agreement to merge with Rocket Lab, asking investors to come forward. One, Rigrodsky Law, did not respond to Herald questions about the basis of its concerns.

Beck brushed off the development today, telling media on a Zoom call: “This is not unique to Rocket Lab. Every single spac vehicle goes through this process – it’s ambulance-chasing, so I’m not concerned.”

The FT also recently reported that investor enthusiasm for spacs is starting to wane, just as regulators have begun to apply more scrutiny to such deals.

Beck said this morning, “We’re holding to our schedule. The SEC [US Securities Exchange Committee] introduced some slight hurdles in respect to warrants and the treatment of warrants, but the team has taken the SEC changes in their stride.”

The Rocket Lab boss said the Nasdaq listing was just one component of a “big year” when his company would also ferry a Nasa satellite into lunar orbit and refine its rocket retrieval efforts.

Rocket Lab’s second rocket retrieval mission, “Running Out of Toes” will appropriately, use a number of components recycled from its first retrieval mission last November.

Beck says the components being reused – valves, pipes and controllers – are relatively modest, accounting for a “single-digit” percentage of the cost of an Electron flight.

The second retrieval mission will again reorientate the Electron’s first stage for re-entry into the atmosphere. A first-stage is otherwise positioned to burn up before hitting the Earth.

A drogue then a full parachute will deploy before a soft water-landing about 12 minutes after lift-off.

“Running Out Of Toes” will have a new heat-shield – the first specifically designed for Electron re-entry. Rocket Lab has also designed a new cradle for retrieving the Electron from the ocean to minimise damage.

Rocket Lab has previously demonstrated a mid-air retrieval, with a helicopter grappling onto a falling-by-parachute Electron in mid-air, using a dummy first-stage.

Beck said the mid-air snatch is better, because none of the rocket’s components get wet. But he expected it would take at least three soft water-landings – likely allbefore year’s end – to perfect re-entry. After that, a real-life helicopter retrieval would be attempted.

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Rocket Lab is one of only two private space operators to retrieve a rocket. The other, of course, is Elon Musk’s Space X, which has used propulsion to land its Falcon rockets under their own power in sci-fi fashion (with mostly successful results).

But Beck points out that although impressive, a self-propelled landing uses more fuel. Effectively, you’re sacrificing 30 to 40 per cent of payload capacity, the Rocket Lab boss said. That meant it didn’t make practical or financial sense for a small rocket like the Electron (which can only carry a 300kg payload to orbit).

However, it could be on the cards for Rocket Lab’s much larger Neutron rocket, which will be able to carry 8000kg of cargo. The Neutron will be designed from the ground-up for first-stage retrieval.

Beck also reiterated that the Neutron’s maiden flight – scheduled for 2024 – will be fromRocket Lab’s recently completed Launch Complex 2 at Nasa’s Wallops Island facility in the US state of Virginia.

Launch Complex 1 at Mahia was too small, Beck said.

The Rocket Lab boss added that the 40.5m tall, 4.5m diameter Neutron would be built on-site in Virginia because it would be too small to transport.

All of the current rocket retrieval testing fed directly into the Neutron’s design, Beck said, and would help to make the larger new model reuseable.

A number of benefits have been touted for recycling rockets, including cutting down on space junk and lowering costs.

Beck is embracing them all, but said the key benefit would be in speeding the turnaround time between missions.

Beyond the rocket retrieval test, Running Out of Toes will also carry a number of CubeSats into orbit for BlackSky, a US company that offers satellite imaging and analytics for civilian, intelligence community and defence customers. It specialises in picking up short-term changes to the likes of cargo at a port or airport, or tents in the desert.

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