Rocket Lab Launches First Vehicle from U.S. Soil

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According to what may be the only market research report on the topic, “3D Printing in Commercial Space: The AM Ecosystem in the Private Space Industry” from SmarTech Analysis, the overall value of 3D printed parts for private space is projected to reach $2.1 billion by 2026. Among the earliest pioneers in the space is Rocket Lab. The New Zealand-based firm has not only gone on to launch a North American branch, Rocket Lab USA, Inc. (Nasdaq: RKLB), but has just launched its first vehicle from U.S. soil.

At 6 pm EST on January 24, 2023, what was dubbed the “Virginia is for Launch Lovers” mission took off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport within NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. While it was the company’s first U.S. launch, it was actually the 33rd rocket launched by Rocket Lab in total, with its very first occurring in 2017.

Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle is powered by a total of 10 Rutherford propulsion systems, which the company describes as “the world’s first 3D-printed, electric-pump-fed rocket engine.” This includes prop valves, injectors, pumps, and engine chambers that are all 3D printed with electron beam melting technology.

The Rutherford engine. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab.

With its first U.S. launch, the Electron deployed three satellites to a 550 km orbit for HawkEye 360, a leading radio frequency (RF) geospatial analytics provider. This marks a total of 155 satellites sent into space by Rocket Lab. The success of the mission means that the Kiwi company can now kick off its increasingly large U.S. presence with 12 missions per year, which makes for a total of over 130 missions annually when combined with its Launch Complex 1 operations in New Zealand.

“Electron is already the leading small orbital rocket globally, and today’s perfect mission from a new pad is testament to our team’s unrelenting commitment to mission success,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “After our busiest launch year yet in 2022 with nine successful missions, what better way to kick off the new year than by launching Virginia-built spacecraft from a Virginia launch site, enabled by our rapidly growing Virginia-based team. This mission has been a real team effort. Thanks to the consistent support of NASA, Virginia Space, the FAA, the Commonwealth and our mission partner HawkEye 360, Rocket Lab is proud to bring a reliable and responsive new launch capability to Virginia’s Eastern Shore.”

“We are grateful to share in the success of today’s launch. Our sixth trio of satellites and our first mid-latitude satellite cluster will broaden the scope of our geospatial insights for our partners around the world,” said HawkEye 360 CEO, John Serafini. “This also marks our first launch in our home state of Virginia, making today’s success even more meaningful. We look forward to a fruitful partnership with Rocket Lab and Virginia Space in the months and years ahead.”

The mission also featured the first use of NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU), which provides a common system for flight termination for launch vehicles. Rocket Lab itself has used its own autonomous flight termination system since 2019, but NAFTU can be used with a variety of launch providers. This technology is said to make it cheaper and faster to launch small satellites by widening launch windows, shrinking launch safety corridors, and reducing reliance on ground-based systems.

Electron lifts off at Launch Complex 2. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab USA and Brady Kenniston.

“We are honored to support the launch of this historic mission”, said Ted Mercer, CEO and Executive Director of Virginia Space. “In addition to being Rocket Lab’s first and only U.S. launch location, we will also be building rockets and processing their payload right here in Accomack County – something that has never been done in Virginia. Our partnership with Rocket Lab is a unique opportunity for the Commonwealth of Virginia to create long-term economic development opportunities in the form of high-paying jobs, launch viewing tourism, and construction of new facilities on the Eastern Shore.”

Now that the launch is complete, Rocket Lab will work to deliver 15 HawkEye satellites into low Earth orbit across three total missions. With a growing constellation of RF monitoring satellites, the company will be able to more effectively deliver precise geolocation of RF emissions. Thanks to its 2021 acquisition of Planetary Systems Corporation, Rocket Lab will also be able to provide HawkEye with separation systems, reinforcing Rocket Lab’s vertical integration strategy.

The bigger picture for Rocket Lab’s Virginia location is making it the home for the company’s larger launch vehicle, Neutron. The company will be building, testing, launching, and landing the rocket at the Wallops Flight Facility. Construction of the Neutron Production Complex is already underway.

The new space sector has proven that additive manufacturing (AM) is essentially critical to its progress, resulting in a large proliferation of 3D printing focused companies. This also means that investors are seeing the technology’s capabilities. In the case of Rocket Lab, the two major holders of RKLB stock are VK Services, LLC (15.8 percent), a unit of Khosla Ventures, and Deer Management Co. LLC (13.7 percent), a unit of Bessemer Venture Partners. They are followed by the usual players: Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street, who own 4.55 percent, 4.51 percent, and 2.88 percent respectively.

While Rocket Lab has previously stated that the Rutherford relies on electron beam melting, it’s interesting to note that both Khosla and Bessemer also own significant portions of Velo3D stock, with Deer Management taking 20.31 percent and VK Services taking 16.28 percent. Both companies supported Velo3D and Rocket Lab ahead of their SPAC IPOs. This is important because Velo3D has had a tight relationship with SpaceX in the past and is currently a supplier to Launcher, which both compete and collaborate in the same space as Rocket Lab.

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