You are currently viewing How a Dishwasher Engineer Challenged Elon Musk’s Grip on Commercial Space

How a Dishwasher Engineer Challenged Elon Musk’s Grip on Commercial Space

news-dateline”>(Bloomberg Businessweek) — Elon Musk called in the evening. Or at least my evening.

It was November 2018, and I was staying in Auckland, New Zealand, for a couple of weeks. My day had been spent hanging out at the main factory of Rocket Lab, a maker of small rockets, with its founder, Peter Beck.

I hadn’t talked to Musk much since the publication of my biography of him three years earlier, mostly because he hadn’t appreciated some of the things I’d written and had thought, at one point, about suing me. I got a message from his assistant saying he wanted to talk. I figured he’d start by addressing the multiyear cold shoulder, but he had other ideas. He knew I was in New Zealand and fixated on that. “Aren’t there just like a lot of sheep over there?” he asked. “That’s what I heard. A lot of sheep. And Kim Dotcom.”

For those who don’t remember, Kim Dotcom ran a file upload website and was charged with illegally hosting copyrighted material. Authorities in New Zealand raided Dotcom’s mansion there in 2012. “If I go to New Zealand, I want to see Peter Jackson’s house, which is basically like visiting , and Kim Dotcom,” Musk said. “Those are the two things. We could reenact the raid.”

This was a disorienting conversation, but I steered the focus to Rocket Lab. Beck’s company had recently joined Musk’s SpaceX in the ranks of successful private rocket companies, flying one of its machines to orbit from its own spaceport. I wanted Musk’s take on the upstart. “It is impressive that they managed to reach orbit,” he said. “It’s f—ing hard. Bezos has spent a shitload of money, and he hasn’t made it.”

The industrialization of space has tended to concentrate on Musk and his peers Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and the late Paul Allen—billionaires with big personalities who set forth to fire up space tourism businesses or, like Musk, to colonize the moon or Mars. The public has paid less attention to the frenzy among hundreds of other companies scattered around the world building new types of rockets and satellites. They’re trying to establish an economy in low Earth orbit, the stretch of space from 100 to 1,200 miles above ground.

Most notable is Rocket Lab. Its relative anonymity could be traced to the company’s roots in faraway New Zealand. Beck also didn’t arrive with the usual trappings of a space mogul. He wasn’t a billionaire, nor did he make controversial statements or do flashy things.

Beck hadn’t studied aerospace engineering formally. In fact, he hadn’t attended college at all. His work experience consisted of stints at a dishwasher manufacturer and in a government research lab. Rocketry was a hobby he explored at night and on weekends. Somehow he persuaded venture capitalists to fund his pastime.

His story made no sense. One didn’t simply will a rocket company into existence. Support from a billionaire doesn’t even guarantee success: Branson’s rocket venture, Virgin Orbit Holdings, filed for bankruptcy on April 4. The US, with tons of resources and knowledge at its disposal, had produced only a single successful rocket startup, SpaceX.

New Zealand couldn’t even be described as an aerospace backwater. It was basically void of the essential ingredients of rocketmaking: well-trained aerospace engineers, the right materials, good launch infrastructure. Beck would have to solve all that while on a literal and metaphorical island. Surely the investors had made a terrible mistake, I thought. Musk seemed to agree.

Toward the end of my chat with Musk, I made an offhand comment that Beck would like to have dinner with him sometime. Musk found this amusing. “I’ll take you out on a steak dinner date,” he said with a jokey voice. “There better be some flowers.”

Musk mostly blew off Rocket Lab and Beck. Over the next few years, Beck would fashion himself as SpaceX’s worthiest rival and the one likeliest to benefit from an increasingly distracted Musk, who’s now carrying a Twitter-size millstone around his neck. And Beck would do it in the least Musky way possible.

Peter Beck grew up at the end of the world. To find his hometown of Invercargill, you must travel about as far south as New Zealand will allow. The town is surrounded by verdant flatlands filled with cows and sheep; its modest city center appears to have been shipped directly from 1850s Scotland and England.

Beck’s mother, Ann, was a teacher. His father, Russell, was a sculptor who spent two decades as the director of the Southland Museum and Art Gallery. In the center of Invercargill, he built a large metallic umbrella that functions as a sundial and has various constellations built into its see-through canopy. After Russell died, the local paper wrote in its obituary, “There seemed nothing he could not do.”

Russell and Ann created an idyllic existence for Peter, who was born in 1977, and his two older brothers. The focal point of the Beck boys’ energy was a workshop Russell maintained at home. The studio, a converted garage with an olive green door, had milling machines, lathes and welding gear.

At 16, Beck took a standardized test to receive the equivalent of a high school diploma and then thumbed through brochures about engineering trade programs. “I needed to go into a trade and just never felt that university was right for me,” he said. He settled on tool and die making, which required him to learn most of the skills needed to mass-produce the major objects used in industry and everyday life. “The only reason, really, that I was interested in the die-making trade was because it’s hard,” he said.

In 1995 the appliance manufacturer Fisher & Paykel, which is based in New Zealand, offered Beck an apprenticeship in Dunedin. He threw himself into the work, studying under a pair of old-school machinists. He zipped through the four-year apprenticeship, finishing in less than three years while spending his off hours working on engineering projects at home.

Beck was soon elevated to the design office, where he had more influence on the form and function of products. Fisher & Paykel specialized in high-end dishwashers and washing machines, and was struggling with the issue of how the dishwashers dispensed detergent. Most appliance manufacturers bought their dispensers from the same supplier, but since Fisher & Paykel wanted to be better than other companies, it paired Beck with an experienced engineer and asked them to come up with an original design. Without delving too deeply into the sublime intricacies of dispenserology, it can be said that Beck thought up a novel convergent-to-divergent nozzling system that really let the detergent’s water softener do its thing.

Beck spent most of his available free time rebuilding and souping up cars, adding superchargers and fuel injection and anything else that made them go fast and look cool, but he wanted more power, more speed, more everything. He decided that the limiting factor was the internal combustion engine itself. “So that’s when I started building jet engines,” he said. “But they still didn’t produce enough power. And, you know, that’s when I moved into rockets.”

He fabricated an R&D shed in his backyard, checked out a few books from the library, read up on propellants and rocket engine designs, and settled on an engine that ran on hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide you can buy at a store is about 3% concentration, safe enough to swish around in your mouth. But it’s incredibly volatile in its pure state. To make the compound do what Beck needed it to do, he had to ratchet up the concentration to a run-for-your-life 90%. It would be dishwashers by day, explosives by night.

His first rocket-propelled contraption looked like a cross between a racing motorbike and a bicycle. The bright yellow body was stretched out, with the handlebars right over the front wheel, meaning that the rider—Beck—would lay prone, with his chest almost touching the frame and legs extended on either side of the back wheel. Below was the rocket assembly, made of a pair of propellant cylinders wrapped in tinfoil and connected to an engine via a mess of tubes. The rocket bike worked, and it was fast.

About the same time, Beck also built a rocket-powered scooter and then a jet pack, which he wore while on roller skates. He stayed at Fisher & Paykel for seven years before moving to Auckland for a job at the New Zealand government-backed research lab Industrial Research Limited, known as IRL. Eventually he mentioned to a couple of colleagues that he harbored greater ambitions. “He told me he was really into rockets and wanted to start a business,” recalled Doug Carter, who was doing business development for the lab. “I remember thinking ‘Well, that doesn’t sound very realistic.’ ”

Carter did have an idea that might help Beck, however. He’d been reading a magazine story about a rich New Zealander so enamored of all things space that he’d changed his legal name to Mark Rocket. “I said, ‘You should give him a ring and see if you can get some money.’ ”

Beck called at an ideal time. This was 2006. Rocket, a local dot-com multimillionaire, was frustrated that the Southern Hemisphere had little presence in commercial space. He’d been hunting for something to invest in but to date had found only people “who were pretty flaky.” Beck talked like a real engineer, and his plan struck Rocket as feasible.

Rocket (né Mark Stevens) had been fascinated by space since childhood. “I was really disappointed that I wasn’t born in America, where they had an astronaut and space program,” he said. Flush with cash after selling a tourism website, he let loose his inner space nerd and paid about $250,000 for a reservation on Virgin Galactic’s planned spaceplane.

Beck’s proposal outlined an idea for a ship that could fly 175 pounds of cargo into space for a few minutes. University labs were expected to be the main customers at first. Rocket needed only a couple of weeks to decide. He cut a check for $300,000 and took a 50% stake in the company. “It seemed like an easy way to get rid of a bunch of money, but it was exactly what I wanted to get involved with, and it didn’t seem like anyone else was thinking along the same lines,” he said.

It turned out that someone else was indeed thinking along the same lines. At SpaceX, Musk was pouring resources into a relatively small rocket that could serve as a sort of FedEx for space. Rather than a traditional rocket that cost $60 million to $300 million per launch, Musk wanted a smaller one that could be fired off much more cheaply and more often to make regular deliveries of small satellites and other cargo.

SpaceX developed such a rocket, the Falcon 1, and held its first successful launch in 2008. Then, remarkably, Musk decided to stop making it and focus on bigger machines. Back then, the decision made a lot of sense. The money was in launching big satellites for governments and communications companies. And Musk’s long-term plan included putting people and thousands of tons of equipment into space and onto Mars. Neither task can be accomplished on a small rocket.

Beck realized that the Falcon 1’s demise had opened an opportunity. Rocket Lab would work on a small craft that could carry about 500 pounds of cargo to orbit for $5 million per launch. Instead of launching the rocket at the typical cadence of once a month, Rocket Lab would go once a week and then perhaps once every three days.

The thesis was clear: Rocket Lab would complete the mission that SpaceX had begun and then forgotten. It would deliver the world’s first cheap, reliable rocket ready to fly into space at a moment’s notice.

Beck held back on dishing out his full vision for the company to his new investor. He feared he might scare off the only person in the Southern Hemisphere willing to back his hopes and dreams. “I was terrified that all of my plans would just sound too crazy,” Beck said.

Money in hand, he marched back to his bosses at IRL and asked for some space to build his company. The lab granted Beck an office on one floor and another area in the basement where Rocket Lab could conduct its more serious experiments, the kind that required the shielding of concrete walls. Best of all, IRL gave him access to everything for free.

Beck began building his first rocket. The project required that he once again experiment with propellants. This time it wasn’t so much about refining the chemicals as finding the right recipe of explosives to combine. He read books on chemistry and sought advice from anyone who could help, including scientists working down the hallway. After many experiments over several months, Beck settled on a combination of ammonium perchlorate, aluminum and hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene, which were fused into a bar of solid rocket fuel. He could hold the hunk of fuel in his hand, and he would place it in a safe each night before he left the office.

The operation must have looked absurd: three people in an office the size of a small studio apartment. They bought a 10-by-10-foot shipping container and installed it in the basement as their rocket engine testing center, a space where “you could do cool and dangerous things,” said Nikhil Raghu, an engineer and Beck’s first employee. They also built a shed and made sure it was completely sealed and electrostatically grounded. Such precautions were necessary as they fiddled with the ingredients for their rocket fuel. “Not only does it like to set things on fire, but you don’t want to breathe it in,” Raghu said.

Crucially, Beck had to learn how to move beyond making a one-off prototype and toward making an elegant, complete, reproducible machine. The engines he’d built in the past had always been slapped onto something like a bike or a pair of roller skates. Rockets, even small ones, required more holistic thinking. They simply had no room for error.

They were also expensive. Beck and Raghu constantly chased grants, including one for $99,000 they secured from the government to create “New Zealand’s first space programme.”

By November 2009, Rocket Lab had a nearly completed spacecraft, the Ātea-1, but was starting to run out of money. Mark Rocket made some additional loans to keep the company going, but it was clear that Rocket Lab needed to do this thing and show the world its technology if it wanted to remain a going concern. No more engineering. No more refining. Let’s see if the rocket works.

Finding somewhere that would let Beck have his moment of truth also required imaginative engineering. He first reached out to people in Australia to see if he could borrow a chunk of uninhabited land in the desert, but no one would take him seriously. Eventually he found a plot owned by the New Zealand navy near the Mercury Islands off the country’s eastern coast. The site was just a short hop from Auckland and designated as a weapons-testing range, which made it easier to justify sending up a small missile.

Then Beck learned that a wealthy banker named Michael Fay co-owned one of the islands outright. Dealing with one rich guy might be easier than messing with the military. So, because it was New Zealand and everyone knew one another, Beck called a guy who knew a guy who knew Fay and asked if he’d like to host an historic rocket launch on Great Mercury Island. “My friend called and said that some guy wanted to do a rocket launch,” Fay said. “He offered to tell Peter to f— off on my behalf, but I said, ‘No way. Give me his number.’ ”

Before agreeing, Fay asked to visit Beck’s lab in Auckland. He saw the pictures of Beck’s rocket bike and other inventions. “I went in skeptical,” he said, “but it struck me that there was good design and sophistication to what he had done.”

In late November 2009, Beck, Raghu and a third teammate, an electrical engineer named Shaun O’Donnell, turned up on Great Mercury Island. Fay had put helicopters, barges and boats at Team Rocket Lab’s disposal, as they spent about a week bringing in the necessary gear. “Michael told us, ‘You do nothing else but launch this rocket, and I’ll make sure everything else happens,’ ” Beck said. Used to hosting celebrities such as Bono on the island, Fay decided to turn the launch into a party, sent out invites to friends and the media and hired a chef to feed them all.

As word of the impending launch spread, the various layers of the New Zealand government offered surprisingly few objections. Through Fay’s connections, it took all of two phone calls to clear the airspace on the appointed launch day, with airlines agreeing to detour all their flights.

On Nov. 30, Beck and his crew prepared to launch the Ātea-1 early in the morning. Inside the rocket’s payload bay, Fay placed a homemade lamb sausage wrapped in foil. Observers, including a couple of news crews, camped out on the grassy hills surrounding the makeshift launchpad. A Maori ceremony was held to bless the rocket.

No first rocket launch goes off without a hitch, and Rocket Lab’s was a defective fueling system fitting that cost $5. While Fay plied the visitors with food and drink, Beck jumped into a helicopter and flew to a hardware store back on the North Island. He couldn’t find the exact part but got something suitable enough, rushed back and, in front of the eager, increasingly impatient crowd, modified the rocket.

Just after 2 p.m., Beck was back in the shed. Dressed in a white lab coat, he stood before a couple of laptops and started poking at buttons. “In the tradition of great New Zealand explorers,” he proclaimed, “we are go for space!”

“Ten, nine, eight, oxygen, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one!” As Beck jammed a red button, a glorious whoosh could be heard outside. He jumped out the open door, looked up and saw the rocket flying and yelled, “You f—ing beauty! Yes!” leaping into the air as Raghu cackled.

Fay began opening some of his best wines. He was philosophical. New Zealand, he said, was a country with no predators; some of the birds didn’t even fly because they had nothing to flee. Although the Maori had a word for space, they didn’t have one for a rocket. Beck had changed the country’s relationship with the heavens.

Over the next decade, Rocket Lab grew. It fully experienced the complete and utter drudgery of getting a rocket from prototype to reproducible industrial object—a black, 60-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide model called Electron. It got much better at launches, won contracts, moved its headquarters to Los Angeles and attracted more investors, who valued the company at well over $1 billion. It became a space unicorn. And in May 2019, Beck finally got his dinner with Musk.

“I don’t know exactly what was said at that dinner,” said Brian Merkel, a SpaceX employee who’d previously established Rocket Lab’s US operations. “But people came back afterward and said Elon had come away impressed. I think Pete had conveyed a vision for Rocket Lab that was not that far off from what SpaceX had.” In August 2019, SpaceX revealed a new plan to begin regular launches for small-satellite makers. At the time, about 2,500 satellites were orbiting Earth. Two years later, there were 5,000. Over the next decade, that number will probably reach somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000.

Rocket Lab went public in mid-2021, raising hundreds of millions of dollars. The initial public offering established Beck as one of New Zealand’s premier entrepreneurs and made him one of the country’s wealthiest citizens. (It also demonstrated how tough the business is: As of 2022, Rocket Lab still wasn’t turning a profit.)

The company is developing a large, reusable rocket called Neutron. It will be a direct competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, capable of landing intact on a launchpad. Rocket Lab has also been working on making the Electron reusable so it can continue increasing the pace of its launches while keeping costs down. It isn’t launching rockets every three days, not yet. But no other company has neared SpaceX’s pace. Last summer, Rocket Lab carried a payload to the moon on behalf of NASA, and it has contracts for more lunar missions and some for Mars and Venus, too.

A few months before the pandemic, I visited Beck at his vacation home on the South Island. We rode jet skis—the fastest ones available, of course. We went panning for gold in a river with our kids. Whenever we heard a truck trundling near us, Beck’s son would call out engine specs based on sound alone.

I tried to get Beck to open up about his ambitions; he wanted to discuss the minutiae of the rocket business and his competitors’ travails. “Don’t get me wrong, I think sending a few people to Mars increments the human species,” Beck said. “No argument. I think it’s wonderful. But I think you can have a larger impact on a larger group of people by commercializing space and making it accessible. That’s how you influence people’s lives and improve them.

“I mean, if we’re being honest, how does sending a couple of dudes to Mars meaningfully impact your life or my life? We’re inspired, and that is an impact. But that doesn’t really change the way that I live my life. However, if we put up a ton of weather satellites and give way better weather predictions so that crops can be harvested better or, shit, just so that we can decide whether to go on a hiking trip or not, that has a meaningful effect on my life.”

When the Heavens Went on Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach

Source link

Leave a Reply