Bloomberg Businessweek (May 8, 2023)
Год выпуска: May 8, 2023
Автор: Bloomberg Businessweek
Издательство: «Bloomberg Businessweek»
Формат: PDF (журнал на английском языке)
Количество страниц: 68
NOT ELON'S ROCKET
SpaceX was the dominant force in commercial launches—until a Kiwi named Peter Beck arrived. An exclusive excerpt from a new history of the space industry
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 Lord of the Rings, 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 Alien-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....”
Turning the Space Race Upside Down