In the private space industry, it can seem that there’s SpaceX and then there’s everyone else. Only Blue Origin, backed by its own billionaire founder in the person of Jeff Bezos, seems able to command the same degree of attention. And Blue Origin hasn’t even gone beyond suborbital space yet.
Rocket Lab might soon have something to say about that duopoly. The company, founded in New Zealand and headquartered in Long Beach, California, is second only to SpaceX when it comes to launch frequency—the two are ostensibly the only American companies that regularly go to orbit. Its small flagship Electron rocket has flown 18 times in just under four years and delivered almost 100 satellites into space, with only two failed launches.
On March 1, the company made its ambitions even clearer when it unveiled plans for a new rocket called Neutron. At 40 meters tall and able to carry 20 times the weight that Electron can, Neutron is being touted by Rocket Lab as its entry into markets for large satellite and mega-constellation launches, as well as future robotics missions to the moon and Mars. Even more tantalizing, Rocket Lab says Neutron will be designed for human spaceflight as well. The company calls it a “direct alternative” to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
“Rocket Lab is one of the success stories among the small launch companies,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “They are edging into the territory of the larger, more established launch companies now—especially SpaceX.”
That ambition was helped by another bit of news announced on March 1: Rocket Lab’s merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation. Joining forces with a special-purpose acquisition company, a type of company that ostensibly enables another business to go public without an IPO, will allow Rocket Lab to benefit from a massive influx of money that gives it a new valuation of $4.1 billion. Much of that money is going toward development and testing of Neutron, which the company wants to start flying in 2024.
It’s a bit of an about-face for Rocket Lab. CEO Peter Beck had previously been lukewarm about the idea of building a larger rocket that could launch bigger payloads and potentially offer launches for multiple customers at once.
But the satellite market has embraced ride-share missions into orbit, especially given the rise of satellite mega-constellations, which will probably make up most satellites launched into orbit over the next decade. Neutron is capable of taking 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit, which means it could deliver potentially dozens of payloads to orbit at once. As a lighthearted mea culpa, the introductory video for Neutron showed Beck eating his own hat.
Neutron puts Rocket Lab in closer competition with SpaceX in other ways as well. Both companies are investing in cheaper spaceflight through the use of lower-cost materials and reusable systems. Neutron’s first-stage booster will be designed to land vertically on an ocean platform, just like the first-stage booster of the SpaceX Falcon 9.
The comparisons to SpaceX don’t stop there. Rocket Lab claims that Neutron will be designed so it can be certified to fly human missions into orbit and to the International Space Station—just as SpaceX currently does. Neutron’s design is comparable to that of the Russian Soyuz launch vehicle, which can take trios of astronauts to the ISS. And of course, both companies are interested in missions to destinations beyond orbit. Neutron will be able to send 2,000 kg payloads to the moon and 1,500 kg payloads to Mars and Venus.
There are still some differences. Unlike SpaceX with its Crew Dragon vehicle, Rocket Lab isn’t building its own crew capsules yet. If Neutron can start taking humans into orbit, it’s not clear exactly what vehicles can launch on top of it. Rocket Lab isn’t building an interplanetary spaceship like Starship. And it’s not trying to create a global satellite internet service like Starlink. Rocket Lab’s only big project outside of rockets is the Photon satellite bus (the infrastructure for the spacecraft that usually tells ground control where the satellite is in orbit).
And Neutron won’t simply work out of the box. Making it reusable will require test after test (not even Electron is fully reusable yet). Neutron’s engine design is too big and complex to simply be adapted from Electron, so the company must start from scratch and figure out how it’s going to scale production all over again.
Unsurprisingly, human spaceflight will be the company’s big challenge. “Their new vehicle will make them more competitive for payloads,” says Handberg. “Human spaceflight is more problematic.” The ISS is one destination, but Rocket Lab will be competing with SpaceX and Boeing for such contracts. Maybe it can find business through space tourism, but that industry is still in its infancy.
And then there’s safety. “Rocket Lab has a competition problem, but that will be secondary to the cost of making the new vehicle human rated and building an infrastructure to support operations,” says Handberg. “SpaceX is one flight mishap away from problems with the Crew Dragon vehicle.” The failed Starliner test flight in December 2019 pushed back Boeing’s hopes of sending people into space by over a year. With Neutron, though, the daylight between SpaceX and Rocket Lab has suddenly shrunk when it comes to impact on the commercial space industry. If and when Neutron is ready to fly in 2024, they will be even closer.