‘It can affect millions, tens of millions, even billions’: Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck and the reasons for his space search

Rocket Lab file image

By Kevin Norquay,
Published by Stuff, 15 January 20223

What makes a CEO? In this 12-part series Kevin Norquay talks to business leaders who buck the stereotype.

Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck is not one to reflect on all he has achieved in life … it takes a full moon to push him anywhere near that zone.

“I’m not a very reflective person, to be honest. There’s always so much going on in the front that that’s what I really need to focus on,” Beck tells Stuff.

“I will say though, after we went to the moon, whenever I go outside now, look up at the sky and see the moon, I think quite a lot differently about that,” he says.

“And I’ll generally chuckle ‘I went there, or the company went there’. So that was probably the most profound mission that causes me to reflect but generally, I’m more interested in what’s in front of me than what’s behind.”

In June 2022 Rocket Lab launched a miniaturised satellite to the Moon – on a path finding mission to support a NASA programme which aimed at putting the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon.

Since 2006, Beck has grown Rocket Lab into a global organisation that develops and launches advanced rockets, satellites and spacecraft.

And behind him are a string of doubters. From the time he was growing up in Invercargill, he was told he was on the wrong track, his ambitions were unachievable, he should get a real job.

But young Beck didn’t listen then, and he’s not listening now.

Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab.

“I was very, very resolute in what I wanted to do with my life and my career, to the point that the school called in various counsellors and my parents to have a meeting because they thought that, my aspirations were thoroughly unachievable and I should go and work at Tiwai Aluminium Smelter as fitter turner, because I was good with my hands,” he says.

He knew what he wanted: to build rockets, so he did a tool and die apprenticeship at appliance manufacturer Fisher & Paykel. What, you may well ask, do washing machines have to do with rockets? Engineering, is what.

“I wanted to be able to build the rockets, because there was no way I could go to university and learn how to build rockets, and the engine bolting systems and construction systems and all those kinds of things,” he says.

“I figured the best way would be to have the hand skills to do that first. So that’s what I went and did. I ultimately ended up at Industrial Research, which is now Callaghan Innovation or the old DSIR.”

While full moon causes Peter Beck to reflect on Rocket Lab’s achievements he likes to look forward more.

From there he went on a rocket pilgrimage to the United States, came back and quit his job to start Rocket Lab in 2006. It would be fair to say shooting for the stars was all consuming.

“I had my day job and had my night job, right? And it’s probably a strength and a weakness that once I focus on a thing that I’m really passionate about, it’s all in,” Beck says.

“Engineering is cool, but the thing I like about space the most is just the sheer impact you can have on so many people.

“If you build a bridge in a city, the people use that bridge, and it obviously has a tremendous impact on that population group.

“But the wonderful thing about space is you can put literally a little box of electronics on orbit, and it can affect millions, tens of millions, even billions of people, whether it’s providing communication services or weather services or imagery, or whatever.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket waits on the launch pad on the Mahia peninsula in June. NASA wants to experiment with a new orbit around the moon which it hopes to use in the coming years to once again land astronauts on the lunar surface.

“In very few industries can you have such a massive impact for such an engineering adventure. Space is a unique environment. There’s nowhere else where you can stand back and have a macro view of what’s happening in the world.

“A number of the climate change sciences are underpinned by space data and space infrastructure, so you can have a massive impact there.”

Rocket Lab’s Argos satellite provides “really, really critical data from weather”, as well as being used to track wildlife.

“The satellite that we just launched (in late 2022) is the next generation of that, which has even better fidelity to really monitor wildlife migrations around the planet. It’s just one small example.

“This is the bit that makes me excited in the morning, we’re not just launching our repeater box into space, there are observation missions or weather missions.”

While Beck went through the teenage thing of working on cars, his true love was always engineering. Not just making things, but making beautiful things. Beautiful rockets, specifically.

“It was a very transient period of my life where you know, as a teenage boy, souping up little mini cars and stuff like that, in between building rockets,” he says.

His father Russell had one eye on space as well, building a six-inch reflecting telescope, then in 1959 a 12-inch Cassegrain telescope which he later donated to the Southland Museum and Art Gallery.

Southland Museum contains a telescope made by Peter Beck’s father.

“As a kid, I used to go to the Southland Astronomical Society, and it was really two passions, one was space and the other was engineering,” Peter Beck says.

“I wouldn’t say I started off in cars. I was building rockets and had the engineering skills to muck around with cars a little bit, so that’s really where I’ve come from.

“It was all about the rockets. Well, not just about the rockets, but it’s about space. If you look at some of the satellites we’re building, they’re just the most incredible machines that you could possibly imagine.

“I’m very sensitive to aesthetics. So if you look at Rocket Lab, whether it be launch vehicles or any kind of branding or materials, we really care about … we have a saying here, ‘we make beautiful things’….whether it be a rocket or spreadsheet. That’s one of the key elements of the success of the company and the reason why our stuff works, we take the time to make it functional, but also beautiful.”

Rocket Lab in Mt Wellington, Auckland.

With that in mind, and with his – let’s say obsession – with rockets and space since he was young, it should be no surprise that as CEO Beck gets involved in the detail of Rocket Lab.

“I could not be hands-off. I would say I’m less hands on than I was, especially running a public company. But, I’m still the chief engineer of the business and head up the major programmes,” he says.

“That won’t change. I guess, I really enjoy the engineering side of it, and I really enjoy the business side of it. Generally that’s not always true, maybe I’m just a tiger for punishment.

“I just love challenges and solving problems. Whether it’s an engineering problem or a finance problem, an organisational problem, I just enjoy both sides.”

While Beck is given to pondering big questions such as whether we are alone in the universe, and has dedicated a specific mission to answering it, you’re unlikely to catch him blasting off into space to check for himself.

“I have tremendous admiration for an astronaut. I know every nut and bolt there is on the launch vehicle and I also know the risks with space flight, there’s not a lot of margin in the vehicle. And it takes tremendous courage,” he says.

“When you know too much about something, then it depletes your courage. So, I would be the worst astronaut you can imagine. I’d be looking for wires on every single bolt.

“Astronauts just have this amazing ability to turn all that off, focus on the mission at hand, and go and execute it. Some of us are made to do that, some of us aren’t – I’m not.”

So, is there life out there?

“The probability of us successfully answering that question is incredibly low, but nevertheless we are having a crack; the impact that you can have on the human race’s knowledge is just enormous.

Peter Beck poses with The Rutherford at the company’s Auckland headquarters in 2015. The Rutherford is a battery-powered rocket engine printed on 3D parts.

“If you take the scientific approach, we have not been able to prove any evidence to date. So the answer scientifically has to be ‘no, there is no other life’. However, if you look at what creates the building blocks of life and the universe, then statistically there has to be.

“I have no doubt there will be some footprints on Mars at some point, but we are really focused on more ‘how do we use space to better Earth, and to improve life on Earth?’”

So back on Earth, he has advice for teenagers tinkering with cars, or dreaming of what their future might be.

He spends a lot of time helping entrepreneurs, because he thinks New Zealand has really great ones .

“I sit on a bunch of investment committees and invest in a lot of startups around the country. I really, really love that,” he says.

Peter Beck is looking for the big answers outside Earth.

“In New Zealand … we don’t tend to think big enough. If you’re going to go and do something, it’s no more painful to do something really big than it is to do something really small.

“If you’re building a company, you might as well just go and do the really big thing, and just go for it. And if it all doesn’t work, then well at least you had a crack and no harm, no foul.

“So choose the thing that you’re really passionate about, then make it big are the pieces of advice that I would give to people.

“You’re on this planet for an excruciatingly short amount of time. Choose something that you want to do, and something that you believe is going to have an impact.

“At the end of the day … the question that ultimately you reflect back on is ‘well, what did I get done? What did I do with my life? What impact did I have?’

“And nobody ever measures impact by the size of their house, or what kind of flashy car they’ve got or anything like that. The true way to measure impact is ‘what did I do for the world?’

“Following your passion, and keeping that as a North Star is what I always challenge everybody to do, because ultimately that’s how you define how successful your time on this planet was.”

So then, has Beck done enough yet to tick all those ‘impact’ boxes?

“No, no, far from it.”

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