SpaceX Rival Rocket Lab Debuts on Nasdaq: What’s in Its Ambitious Playbook?

New Zealand-based Rocket Lab is one of the only two privately funded space companies with a viable satellite launch business.

A Rocket Lab Electron on the launch pad in New Zealand ahead of the “Don’t Stop Me Now” mission. Rocket Lab

SpaceX rival, New Zealand-based Rocket Lab, completed its reverse merger with special-purpose acquisition company Vector Acquisition Wednesday and became the latest privately funded rocket company to go public. Shares have begun trading on Nasdaq under the ticker “RKLB.”

First announced in March, the SPAC deal valued Rocket Lab at $4.1 billion. The company raised $777 million at the transaction’s close, including nearly $500 million in PIPE (private investment in public equity) funding from Vector Capital, BlackRock, Neuberger Berman and other institutional investors.

Two days before its public market debut, Rocket Lab received NASA’s green light to design and possibly launch two of its Photon spacecraft for a science mission to Mars.

The mission is known as the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, or ESCAPADE. It’s part of NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEX) program, aimed to conduct compelling interplanetary research with small satellites. 

If everything goes well, Rocket Lab hopes to launch the pair of spacecraft in 2024 and arrive on the red planet sometime in 2025 to study its magnetosphere.

Rocket Lab has a few other interplanetary projects involving the Photon craft under development as well. Later this year, it’s expected to launch a probe to the moon in a mission called CAPSTONE. The probe will act as a precursor to Gateway, an international moon-orbiting outpost envisioned under NASA’s Artemis program.

At the time of winning the CAPSTONE contract, Rocket Lab also launched an internal effort to send a similar spacecraft to Venus—to look for life.

“The spacecraft we’re building for NASA to go to the moon is not that much different than the spacecraft we are sending to Venus…We have the resources to do it, so it’s just unacceptable to not try,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck told Observer in an interview in January. “Instead of doing large missions once every decade, we want to prove that we can fill lots of small missions in between to advance state-of-the-art planetary science.”

Aside from satellites, Rocket Lab’s most commercially promising product are reusable rockets. Similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 boosters but much smaller (and cheaper), these rockets are designed to regularly send research and commercial payloads to Earth’s orbit and beyond.

The company has successfully tested a reusable rocket called Electron, which is about a quarter the size of a SpaceX Falcon 9. With new funding from the SPAC merger, the company plans to develop a larger booster called Neutron for lifting heavier payloads.

Neutron will stand at 131 feet tall, about two-thirds the size of a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Rocket Lab’s satellite launch business brought in $33 million in revenue in 2020. Expecting government and commercial launch demand to grow rapidly in the coming years, the company aims to be profitable by 2023 and reach $1 billion in revenue by 2026. SpaceX Rival Rocket Lab Debuts on Nasdaq: What’s in Its Ambitious Playbook?