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Rocket Lab is recruiting more specialist staff, including logistics and supply chain experts

Reach for the skies –
By Nigel Parry

A supply chain can seem a pretty humdrum affair. Unless you can watch your final dispatch roar away into the atmosphere. Oh, and each delivery has a price tag of a cool US$5 million.

Kiwi/US organisation Rocket Lab is tilting at an underserved market – smaller satellites sent into orbit for (relatively) low cost. There’s a backlog apparently, and current services are infrequent and expensive, requiring small satellites to hitch a ride on large rockets and then get their final delivery when up in orbit – from the International Space Station, for example.

The answer? The Electron rocket – 17 m of sophistication. A lightweight in space rocket terms, it has been designed and developed to deliver a 150 kg payload 500 km above the Earth, at lower cost and with much greater frequency than current rivals. It’s ideal for the growing use of satellites in environment and traffic monitoring, search and rescue, internet and communications, for example. Each launch could involve several, as tiny CubeSats weigh in at around 1 kg each.

It’s a niche market that could be worth US$62 billion in just over 10 years.

Advanced supply chain

At launch, the Electron thrust power is close to a 747 engine at full throttle, yet the ‘vehicle’ is a one-shot weapon; there’s nothing to retrieve and reuse after launch. However, getting the Electron to the launch pad on the Mahia Peninsula in Hawke’s Bay is a supply chain brimming with advanced materials and manufacturing.

The Rutherford rocket engines themselves are 3D printed in the USA, a world first, before being air freighted to Auckland, where the various stages of the rocket are assembled. While many have predicted that 3D printing will eliminate logistics links and enable an infinite variety of parts to be produced locally, rather than shipped internationally, this is advanced manufacturing – additive 3D printing using electron beam melting of powdered metal (titanium and super alloys) in a vacuum. 

All the main elements of an engine – combustion chamber, injectors, pumps, and main propellant valves – are produced in a few days.

According to CEO and founder Peter Beck, 3D printing also gives the company the ability to run rapid prototyping. Designed by Rocket Lab as a small, lightweight, cheap and simple engine with an electric pump, the first to use that type of feed cycle, it went from concept to launch pad in just four years.
 
Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck – 3D printing gave the company the ability to run rapid prototyping

There are ten in each Electron: nine in the first (lift off) stage, and one (the only difference is in the injector nozzle, designed to work in a vacuum) in the second stage. The common design also streamlines production and assembly.
For placing multiple payloads in different orbits, there is the option of a ‘kick stage’, also powered by a 3D printed engine to a different design.

Production line processes 

With weekly launches in the pipeline, the company has taken the Henry Ford approach to the craft of space rocket manufacture. “The production process is set up as a manufacturing line, making the same product hundreds of times over,” comments Morgan Bailey of Rocket Lab. “We have fixed processes using standardised parts so that we have a rapid, repeatable approach to launch.”

There are thousands of components that come from local suppliers and all over the world, and when the company is operating at full throttle it is essential that these are in the right place at the right time. In addition, the stores and warehousing team are also responsible for running an efficient and reliable flight store, managing the reordering of consumables and the preparation of part kits for production.

From Auckland, each rocket is transported by truck to Mahia in stages ready for final assembly onsite. “It’s a bit tricky to ship an almost 18 m rocket,” says Morgan Bailey. The number of trucks depends on the mission. It is highly specialised. “We make sure everything gets down their safely and in perfect condition.”
 

The Rocket Lab launch complex on the Mahia Peninsula – the site is relatively free from air and marine traffic that might disrupt critical launch windows

Despite the slow journey on New Zealand roads, Mahia is apparently the ideal site, relatively free from air and marine traffic that might disrupt critical launch windows, when the timing is right and the weather doesn’t prevent a launch. It’s better for the airlines too; the latest SpaceX launch disrupted hundreds of commercial flights in the US.

The actual payload (satellite) can either be loaded into the plug-in payload section by Rocket Lab (they also make the all-carbon payload fairing themselves in Auckland), or, if they prefer, customers can load their own.

The fuel required for the Rutherford engines is supplied locally and held in tanks at the launch site. The fuel tanks of the rockets are also part of the company’s development in lightweight, high-performance engineering, where carbon fibre composites are heavily used. It’s a high-tech 1 tonne rocket that holds 11 tonnes of oxygen/kerosene fuel.

A regular service

The time from a rocket leaving in pre-assembled stages in Auckland to actual launch is currently measured in weeks, but the company has ambitious plans to make monthly launches by the end of this year, and then pushing on to weekly launches (which would give Rocket Lab over a third of all annual launches from anywhere on Earth). 
Getting the Electron from the Auckland workshop to the launch pad on the Mahia Peninsula is a supply chain brimming with advanced materials and manufacturing

“Weekly launches really changes the logistics,” says Morgan Bailey. “When we are up to that, we are looking at changing.” How that develops is something the future holds for now, especially as the company is recruiting more specialist staff, including logistics and supply chain experts. Who knows? This week you could be reading this article, and next year planning the logistical support for reliable weekly blast-offs. It could be the closest a logistician gets to being a rocket scientist!

The first satellites were delivered into orbit back in January, yet the first commercial launch, slated for late June, was scrubbed, first due to an issue with the tracking station in the Chatham Islands, then unexpected behaviour in a critical onboard controller.

Even with all that extra equipment hurtling into orbit, Rocket Lab is also involved in tidying up outer space: the Electron rocket will also launch a German-built craft to test an aerodynamic drag sail that could be used on future satellites and help clear space junk out of orbit.

New Zealand is only the 11th nation on the entire planet to put something up into space. We even set up a New Zealand Space Agency two years ago and are becoming a player in the US$320 billion market. Kiwis are punching way above our weight, even as mankind reaches for the stars.

Award-winning journalist Nigel Parry started writing for FTD over ten years ago, and has been covering logistics and supply chain issues in a number of countries for more than two decades; he can be contacted at nigel.parry@gmail.com


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