Can Rocket Lab Succeed Where SpaceX Failed?

Founded in 2006, Rocket Lab are an innovative launch provider offering commercial customers a small reliable launch system. The small launch vehicle approach to commercial orbital access was first introduced to the market by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. With the launch provider abandoning the approach, it has left a vacuum in the industry that Rocket Lab is looking to fill.

Rocket Lab primary launch vehicle is the Electron. The 17 meter high all carbon composite rocket has a maximum payload of 225 kg and with its, all black exterior looks like something out of a science fiction film. The launch provider will offer both dedicated and ride-share launch options at around $4.9 million a launch.

With their “Space is open for business” slogan ringing in the ears of potential customers, the launch provider is rushing to complete testing of their launch vehicle. The process has, however, not been without incident. The launch vehicle’s first test on May 25, 2017, saw it fail to reach orbit. In a statement following the launch, a spokesperson for Rocket Lab blamed a “third-party error” that was quickly corrected.

Not stopping to breath, the Electron’s second test launch will see Rocket Lab attempting their first satellite deployment. Spire Global, a private imagining company that already has a constellation of twelve Earth observation CubeSats will look to launch a thirteenth aboard an Electron before the end of the year.

“We’re eager to test the next crucial step, payload deployment,” said founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, Peter Beck in a statement announcing the Spire Global launch deal.

If all this sounds more than a little familiar, it’s probably because much of Rocket Lab’ market strategy appears to be inspired by, if not based on that of early SpaceX. In 2002, Elon Musk envisaged a small launch vehicle, the Falcon 1 with a comparable size, payload and thrust potential to the Electron. Additionally, Musk and Falcon 1 undercut the market by more than 90%, offering flights at around $6.5 million with the earlier Merlin A engine and $7 million with the upgraded Merlin C engine.

That early SpaceX market strategy was, however quickly abandoned. Although there had been significant early interest in an affordable small launch vehicle, once the company actually started taking orders, the demand was just not there. Instead, the company moved onto the Falcon 9 and began development of the Falcon Heavy and BFR launch vehicles.

It seems then that Rocket Lab are hoping that SpaceX was just too early, like many companies before them. So can they succeed where Elon Musk and his innovative launch provider failed? Well, that very much depends on whether or not the market decides it needs affordable small launch vehicle and there are indications that, that is indeed the case. With the rise of microsats and CubeSats, the payload capacity of the Electron is actually a viable alternative.

Image Credit: Rocket Lab

Andrew Parsonson is a space enthusiast and the founder of Rocket Rundown. He has worked as a journalist and blogger for various industries for over 5 years and has a passion for both fictional and real-life space travel. Currently, Andrew is the primary writer for Rocket Rundown as we look to expand our reach and credibility.