WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab sees the U.S. military as a potential customer of the company’s future medium-lift rocket, Neutron. But unless the Defense Department changes its requirements for launch providers, new entrants like Rocket Lab will be unable to compete for contracts, the company’s CEO Peter Beck said Jan. 17.

Speaking on a webcast hosted by the investment banking firm Canaccord Genuity, Beck said Rocket Lab is on an aggressive schedule to complete the development of Neutron for a 2024 debut. The reusable rocket’s main target customers will be commercial operators building large constellations but the company also hopes to compete for national security missions.

Although DoD invested more than $24 million in the development of Neutron’s upper stage, its rules for national security launch providers ensure that the only eligible competitors are companies that fly heavy rockets. 

In order to win the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contracts, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance had to demonstrate their vehicles can fly payloads to nine “reference orbits” which requires medium and heavy launch vehicles. 

The Space Force is now contemplating a new strategy for NSSL Phase 3 that would be more flexible, perhaps allowing companies that can’t fly to all orbits to compete for less demanding missions. 

Beck said Rocket Lab would be happy to bid Neutron for medium-lift launches but the company would not invest in a heavy launcher if that’s what it took to win an NSSL contract. 

“I’d love to see a Phase 3 environment where Neutron is on board,” he said. “I think that would offer the nation the most amount of flexibility, the most robust launch access and quite frankly, the lowest price.”

Neutron was designed to lift 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit while recovering the first stage, or up to 15,000 kilograms if the first stage is expended.

Rocket Lab is building a Neutron factory in Accomack County, Virginia, next to the Wallops Flight Facility, where it will soon start launching its small rocket Electron and where it plans to launch Neutron.  

Beck said DoD should reconsider its requirements for launch providers given the current market conditions. The cost of meeting government requirements is too high for commercial companies, he said, considering the small number of NSSL launches that are projected. 

“The big dog on on the street is no longer the government, the big dog on the street are the large, really well funded commercial entities that are looking to build constellations,” said Beck.

If competing for Phase 3 requires building a fleet of vehicles to cover all NSSL payload requirements, “in our case we would have to build a Neutron heavy,” Beck said. “That would be a very difficult commercial decision because you need to spend like a billion dollars to play in that game.”

A company is not going to spend a billion dollars to chase a handful of NSSL launches “when there’s commercial constellations that are looking to acquire years of your capability,” he said.

“What I hope happens in Phase 3 is that the government realizes there’s actually a variety of vehicles out there that will be super useful for the nation’s national security.”

A tough road ahead for Neutron

Beck said he’s confident about Neutron’s development so far but recent launch failures are a reminder of the difficulties not only of bringing a new vehicle to market but also of flying it reliably and consistently.

“It’s been a tough couple of months for launch vehicles,” he said, citing recent failures by a Chinese launcher, Europe’s Vega C, Virgin Orbit and ABL Space.

“The reality is that it’s really hard to build a small launch vehicle and launch it, and it’s even harder to do it over and over and over again.”

Rocket Lab and Electron, he said “have proven ourselves and we’re going strong … but it’s easy to get excited and deliver a vehicle to the pad, but that’s when the work really starts.”

Beck said Neutron is on a compressed timeline, “and we’ve simplified the problems as far as we can. But at the end of the day it is a rocket development program. And I’m sure there’ll be things that come up and hit us in the face, but at this point we’re holding our ground.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...