SPACE 3: Rocket Shopping

Dec 7, 2017
Originally published on December 11, 2017 9:10 am

We've secured our satellite. And while that's pretty cool, we're not quite there yet. We need a rocket. That used to require a having a space agency, like NASA. We don't have a space agency at NPR. But luckily for us, space is a business now, with commercial operators vying for customers. And space companies are actually battling for our business. They want to be the company that takes us to the stars.

This week on the show, it's time for rocket shopping. We go from a startup in New Zealand, 3D-printing rocket engines, to one of the established players in the space business. And just like any big ticket purchase, we had some decisions to make. We could pick the Volvo of rockets: reliable, but not the most glamorous. Or we can take a risk with a fun, little sports car. We weigh the options, and prepare for liftoff.

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This is Part 3 of our Space series. If you have ever wondered how you can personally send something up into space...


You can do it.

VANEK SMITH: ...Go back a couple of episodes and catch up. We will wait.

SMITH: Are we good?

VANEK SMITH: I think so.

SMITH: All right. Here is something that surprised me about the space business. Once you build a satellite and decide what you want it to do in space, you have to go shopping for a rocket to put it on.

VANEK SMITH: And of course, anytime you're shopping for something expensive, there's always a guy. Right? There's a guy with a line.

PHIL BRZYTWA: I'm kind of like your best friend that's going to find you a rocket somewhere in the world that has extra space.

SMITH: Phil Brzytwa is a rocket broker, meaning if you have a satellite...

VANEK SMITH: And we do.

SMITH: ...The PLANET MONEY satellite ready to go. If you have a satellite, then Phil is the man who can get you a lift to space. He says it's just like buying any other big-ticket item.

BRZYTWA: There's a car for every consumer, and there's a type of rocket for every type of satellite and where you want to go.

SMITH: We met Phil at the Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah. He handed us a card. It said right on there, And he said you can book rocket flights right on the Web, just like Expedia - for rockets.

VANEK SMITH: You put in how big your satellite is, when you want to go, and Phil will find you a launch.

SMITH: It may take a year or so to find room for your satellite - the business is booming these days. But there are a lot of places to launch from.

BRZYTWA: New Zealand, California, Florida, Kazakhstan, Japan, India.

SMITH: They all have rockets ready to go?


SMITH: The very existence of Phil, the very existence of this conversation shows you how much the space business has changed. Decades ago, satellites were massive. And they would go up on rockets owned by space agencies. It could cost $100 million dollars to launch, so there weren't many deals to be done.

VANEK SMITH: Now we're in an age of tiny satellites that you can hold in the palm of your hand. Rockets can fit dozens of them. A tiny cube satellite could hitch a ride to space for as cheap as $300,000.

SMITH: Or as Phil, the consummate salesman, says - 295,000.

VANEK SMITH: 295,099.

SMITH: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: We tell Phil about the PLANET MONEY satellite. It is about the size of a loaf of bread. We adopt it from the startup satellite company Planet, who kindly let us put our name on it.

SMITH: And Phil says he can totally help. Think about what you watch your rocket to say about you. It's like picking out a car. So as a podcast going to space for the first time, maybe we want to pick out something classic, something safe, like, he suggests, Orbital ATK.

BRZYTWA: I mean, they're on time. They're reliable, very few mishaps.

SMITH: Kind of a Volvo.

BRZYTWA: That's actually a very apt description of Orbital ATK. It's definitely like a Volvo.

SMITH: Phil says there is, of course, SpaceX, Elon Musk's rocket company. We can take off and land - supercool right now. Obviously, it is the Tesla of the space business. Or there is this new company, a small startup called Rocket Lab out of New Zealand. It's still in the testing phase, but they have a plan to eventually launch a rocket every single week.

BRZYTWA: They're the new hotness.

SMITH: Really? Hot?

BRZYTWA: So hot, so hot right now.

SMITH: Wait. Why?

BRZYTWA: Fifty-two launches in a year. The price is right. That changes the game, for sure.

SMITH: So what kind of car would Rocket Labs be?

BRZYTWA: I don't know. That's tough.

SMITH: We debated it for a surprisingly long time. We had to have a car that was sort of sporty and affordable, you know, with curves.

VANEK SMITH: Like a Corvette or, like, one of those little sporty Miatas.

SMITH: Sure. Like, some sort of red sports car - definitely convertible.


SMITH: The hotness.

VANEK SMITH: OK. So what is it going to be for the PLANET MONEY satellite? Should we pick the family sedan...

SMITH: Very safe.

VANEK SMITH: ...Or the sports car?

SMITH: I think we need to take some test drives.


VANEK SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Today on the show, PLANET MONEY is in the market for a brand-new rocket.

VANEK SMITH: Rocket shopping. There is a new space race going on. But instead of the U.S. versus the Soviet Union, it's dozens of tiny startup companies competing to send tiny little satellites into orbit.

SMITH: It has become so easy to make satellites that even we're doing it. The PLANET MONEY satellite - little Pod-1, we're calling it - it is ready to launch.

VANEK SMITH: But the new space race has reached a bottleneck. There are not enough rockets for everyone to get quickly into orbit. So today on the show, we show you how the rocket-makers are trying to catch up.

SMITH: The problem is - when you're shopping for a tube of metal that spews out flames at 5,000 the trip doesn't always go as planned.


SMITH: For all its hotness, a rocket is just a fancy taxicab. It picks up a little hunk of metal, like the PLANET MONEY satellite, here on Earth, and it lets it off in a particular place.

VANEK SMITH: Now, that place is 300 miles above the Earth.

SMITH: Yes. And so it doesn't just fall right back down, the rocket has to give the satellite some momentum - 17,000 miles an hour worth of momentum, to be exact. That keeps the satellite in orbit, rotating the Earth.

VANEK SMITH: Some rockets take one big satellite the size of a refrigerator. Others are filled with satellites the size of Rubik's Cubes.

SMITH: Or a combination of both. And the way it works designwise is that most of a rocket is engine and fuel. And at the very tippy top is the payload, the satellites. And when the rocket gets to space - gets to the right place, the nose opens like a flower and the little satellites pop out.

VANEK SMITH: In that sense, all rockets are essentially the same. The competition is to see who can do that faster, cheaper and more reliably.

SMITH: Fast, cheap and on time - that's the rocket motto.

VANEK SMITH: That's the dream.

SMITH: Our first test drive was with New Zealand's Rocket Lab, the cute little sports car. I visited them back in April. Their factory is right next to the Auckland Airport in one of those generic-looking office parks - except one of the buildings has a slick, midnight black carbon fiber rocket sitting right on the sidewalk.


SMITH: I think that's where our satellite's going to go.


SMITH: Inside, I am met by the CEO of Rocket Lab, Peter Beck. And the first thing I want to ask is, why exactly did I have to come this far to see a rocket?

(Laughter) So why the hell...

PETER BECK: Did we stay in New Zealand?

SMITH: In fact, we are looking at a map of the world here.

BECK: Yeah.

SMITH: And there you are, New Zealand, down in the lower right-hand corner.

BECK: Yep, yep.

SMITH: ...Basically a half an inch from the edge.

BECK: Nearly off the map.

SMITH: Nearly off the map.

BECK: Yep, yep. exactly.

SMITH: Peter's got wild, curly hair and this baby face. And as he walks me into the factory, he says, listen - why not New Zealand?

BECK: You know, space is kind of viewed as this super-romantic place and elite place, which - right now - it is. But the whole point of Rocket Lab is to break down that barrier. I try and reinforce to everybody that, you know, yes, it's this fire and it's excitement and it's all great and wonderful. But at the end of the day, we're a glorified freight company. We take your parcel, and we deliver it - end.

VANEK SMITH: End. Rocket Lab wants to be like UPS. Type in an address...

SMITH: Three hundred miles above the Earth.

VANEK SMITH: ...Which orbit you want...

SMITH: You know, equatorial orbit, maybe you want to go around the North Pole, South Pole - that way.

VANEK SMITH: And Rocket Lab will take your satellite there - no drama.

SMITH: The satellite business needs a UPS right now. Last year, in 2016, 85 rockets went into space - 85 rockets in the entire world. And if every podcast wants to put up a satellite, there is not enough rocketry to get all of us up there.

VANEK SMITH: The goal of Rocket Lab is to build a small rocket to specifically cater to all of these new, small satellites, all these CubeSats like ours. The goal is to send a rocket up every week, 52 launches a year.

SMITH: By rocket standards, it is a pretty crazy dream. In order to do it, they've modeled this place after one of those nimble Silicon Valley startups, complete with inspirational slogans on the wall, some by Peter himself.

BECK: I'll let you read it.

SMITH: (Laughter) You don't want to read your own slogan?

BECK: No, no. That says pretentious.

SMITH: (Laughter) OK.

(Reading) Make everything you do a work of art. If it looks like crap and does not work, then you have nothing. If it looks fantastic and does not work, at least it looks fantastic.

BECK: Exactly. That's the point, right?

SMITH: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: That is an interesting approach for a person making state-of-the-art machinery.

SMITH: I will say - the principle here is to make it work and look beautiful. And I was hoping to get to see a live rocket launch before I committed our program Rocket Lab.

But there is a hitch. Rocket Lab hasn't actually sent a rocket to space yet. Peter shows me this live video monitor that's on the wall. There's a remote cliff on the east coast of New Zealand. And there, on the cement pad, is their very first rocket, a test rocket. In fact, that's the name.

BECK: Well, our first one is named It's A Test.

SMITH: You can name the second one Hopefully This One Will Work.

BECK: (Laughter) Yeah, well, hopefully, I don't have to name that.

SMITH: (Laughter) Third Time's A Charm?

BECK: No, no - I certainly hope not.

SMITH: Peter does that plan for it to take three tries to get this right. Already, he says, there have been big breakthroughs in his quest for cheap, frequent space travel. For instance, Peter says they will be able to launch faster than anyone else because of that remote New Zealand launchpad. A company in the United States could not launch 52 times a year because there are too many people - and boats and planes flying overhead.

BECK: If we wanted to launch once a week, I was going to have to call up United Airlines every week and tell them that we're going to delay flights into Orlando.

SMITH: Here in New Zealand, they already have a permit to launch every few days if they want to.

VANEK SMITH: There are a lot fewer flights in and out of New Zealand.

SMITH: Yeah, on the east coast of New Zealand, there are fewer of everything.

VANEK SMITH: Except sheep.

SMITH: Except sheep.

VANEK SMITH: (Whispering) And the precious.

SMITH: The other innovative thing that Rocket Lab is doing is to manufacture the rockets lighter and cheaper than their competitors. So for instance, the tube of the rocket is made out of carbon fiber. And Peter says, go ahead. Touch it. You can even lift it.

With one arm, I'm going to lift Stage 2 of this rocket. Well, that is a little heavier than I thought, but I'm lifting it. I'm doing it. That's amazing.

Peter then picks up this gorgeous, curved piece of metal. It looks like a bell. This is part of the rocket engine, and it was made with a 3-D printer.

VANEK SMITH: Wait - how long did that take? (Laughter) Like (imitating 3-D printer running slowly)...

SMITH: I know. I know. For years, I've been hearing about the future of 3-D printing, and then someone shows you, like, a trinket or a little toy that took them three days to make. And you say, so what? But this is part of a metal rocket engine. It's not made out of plastic. And Peter says, with six printers, they can make a rocket engine every 24 hours.

BECK: And you can see the tiny little holes in the side there. Those all run through here. They spiral around here and run through here and link back up to that section there.

SMITH: So when we see a rocket go off, the fire that comes out the bottom, that's...

BECK: It's coming out of here.


So Rocket Lab has figured out the fast part and the cheap part. They are planning on each rocket costing around $5 million - which, yeah, I know - I know that sounds expensive. But in the rocket business, that is cheap.

Now, about the reliability. That's the real question here because the test rocket is still sitting there on the video screen. Peter says it could launch any day. But basically, they're going to go when they're ready, when the conditions are right. And so there I was in New Zealand, rocket just sitting there on the cliff not launching - so I did make Peter promise.

So when you launch this thing, I take it you will actually, like, take photos and record it and...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And let you know, yeah.

BECK: No worries. Yeah, yeah - I'll leave you in...

SMITH: So I go home back to New York. And a month later, in May, we get the phone call. The test rocket is a go. And they not only videotaped it, they made a whole promotional video of the test launch.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three, two, one, liftoff.


SMITH: And for all his New Zealand cool, when the rocket went off, you can see Peter Beck going crazy - like, jumping up and down, waving his hands.


SMITH: I was feeling pretty high on Rocket Lab.

VANEK SMITH: OK. So you are Team Corvette. PLANET MONEY's officially going to take a sports car to space.

SMITH: Yeah - except I sort of missed a crucial fact when I was watching those videos. And I learned about it when I was talking about the launch with Mike Safyan. He's the launch director at the company that's letting us adopt a satellite, Planet. He's our sort of co-parent in this.

And Mike said, yes, it was amazing for a first test. But the rocket did not quite reach orbit.

MIKE SAFYAN: It made it most of the way. So they achieved...

SMITH: Wait, wait, wait. Most of the way?


SMITH: That doesn't sound good.

SAFYAN: Well, you have to remember it's their first.

SMITH: Yeah.

SAFYAN: So building a rocket is not such a simple thing. And - you know, that's why you have a test flight program - so you can kind of work out the kinks before you go into full commercial operations. So if your satellite doesn't make it to orbit on this one, we would probably be able to get you on another ride that would be a bit more reliable.

SMITH: And so we start to get a little bit nervous - not necessarily about losing our satellite but about deadlines. Like, how long would it take Rocket Lab to do another test?

VANEK SMITH: And, of course, we don't have to choose Rocket Lab. I mean, as Phil the rocket broker would say, there's always another rocket.

SMITH: Mike says Planet does have deals with other rocket companies. And during the summer, we had this sort of real serious conversation with Planet about the options. They said, look, we're not sure when Rocket Lab will be ready. But there is another company with a planned launch that we can jump on. It's out in beautiful, sunny California. It is Orbital ATK.

VANEK SMITH: Orbital ATK was the Volvo - the Volvo of rockets.

SMITH: Yes. I know, it is not the sports car. They can't launch every week. The rockets are way more expensive than the New Zealand model. They're, like, $40 million. But they have that third thing I was talking about. They are reliable, super reliable. When astronauts on the International Space Station are running low on food, who sends it to them?


SMITH: The Volvo sends the supplies up, Orbital ATK.

VANEK SMITH: So OK, Robert, we have a choice here.


VANEK SMITH: There is the experimental hotness of Rocket Lab...

SMITH: Very hot.

VANEK SMITH: ...Beautiful 3-D printer rocket. Or there is the stable, dependable, maybe a little boxy...

SMITH: It's very sleek.

VANEK SMITH: ...Orbital ATK rocket. So what are we going to do? We have one satellite, two options. What do we do?

SMITH: Sports car or Volvo? I am a father, as you know.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, yes.

SMITH: So I do actually face this question all the time. Am I going to do the safe, responsible thing with the PLANET MONEY satellite that has been entrusted to me by the people...

VANEK SMITH: Little Pod-1.

SMITH: ...Of America? Or am I going to do the fun, risky, life-changing, amazing thing?

I'm in a large empty field, scrub brush everywhere. And just over the hill is our rocket - I made the decision - the PLANET MONEY rocket.

This is such a beautiful spot.

In the end, it was an easy choice. I have deadlines to keep and miles to go before I sleep.

VANEK SMITH: The Volvo - you picked the Volvo.

SMITH: Of course I picked the Volvo. I want to go to space. I got deadlines.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

SMITH: And the communications director from Orbital ATK, Jennifer Bowman, she says - hey, buddy, you did the right thing.

JENNIFER BOWMAN: We're reliable. We're affordable. And we are really designing new vehicles all the time to meet the needs of our customers.

SMITH: OK, it does have a pretty cool name, the Orbital ATK Minotaur-C.

VANEK SMITH: The Minotaur-C. After we decided to go with Orbital ATK, we waited for them to tell us a date. And then, we got a call. End of October - Vandenberg Air Force Base on the Pacific Coast, just north of Santa Barbara.

SMITH: The PLANET MONEY satellite, Pod-1, got shipped there ahead of us to be loaded up. And when we finally see the rocket - our rocket, the PLANET MONEY rocket - it is a beast.

Holy moly, look at that.

BOWMAN: That's nice.

SMITH: And so how tall is this thing?

BOWMAN: It is 103 feet tall.

SMITH: So what is that, like 10 stories...


SMITH: ...Wouldn't you say?

So our satellite is on the top of that thing 10 stories up?


SMITH: It is almost twice as tall as the Rocket Lab rocket. It's built with some components from military missiles, which Orbital ATK also builds. And so it is a more powerful rocket. It can take much larger satellites than ours into orbit.

VANEK SMITH: But everyone is getting into the small satellite game. And Orbital has made a deal with Planet, our satellite partners, to take a bunch of smaller satellites as the primary payload.

SMITH: Looking at it, I still cannot believe it. Our satellite, the one we've been working on - Pod-1 - with our logo on it, with a waveform of our voices etched on the side - it is on the top of this rocket. It is 24 hours away from space - or a blaze of glory.

VANEK SMITH: A beautiful blaze of glory.

SMITH: So can we go touch the rocket?

BOWMAN: Well, in theory, you could. But it's - they're really busy right now. And it's hazardous operations, and there's crowd control. And so no.




It's not that it's that dangerous. The rocket uses solid fuel, which, by the way, I learned is the consistency of a pencil eraser.


SMITH: Yeah, you could probably stick your thumb into it if you wanted to. And apparently, this rocket acts like a giant firecracker. And it burns from the inside out, and the flames shoot out the bottom. And everyone says this design means that it will almost certainly not explode.

But when I ask what can go wrong tomorrow during the launch, there is this long pause. And it took me a while to work it out, but apparently, a previous version of this kind of rocket had a bit of bad luck.

BOWMAN: There was a launch where the fairing did not separate properly. And so...

SMITH: What's a fairing, and what does it mean?

BOWMAN: Remember, that's what holds the payload. That's the part on top that goes around.

SMITH: Oh, so it got all the way to space, and they were all trapped inside?

BOWMAN: Well, it was a little too heavy, so it couldn't - because it didn't come off. So it didn't get to the proper orbit. So...

SMITH: For this type of rocket, this is the first time this is going to space?

BOWMAN: This exact hardware - it will be the first time it goes to space.

SMITH: Apparently, there is no such thing as a 100 percent guaranteed rocket launch.

VANEK SMITH: So we could be in for a white-knuckle ride on the Volvo.

SMITH: Yeah. It's a little more dangerous than we thought.

VANEK SMITH: Tomorrow, launch day, is Halloween.

SMITH: Halloween.

VANEK SMITH: And our entire satellite project is resting inside of an untested rockets called the Minotaur.

SMITH: The Minotaur - half man, half beast, half narrative stunt to keep the drama going.

VANEK SMITH: And if I remember my mythology correctly, the minotaur did not have a happy ending.

SMITH: (Singing) Dun-dun-dun (ph).

VANEK SMITH: (Singing) Dun-dun, dun.

SMITH: Next time on PLANET MONEY, we don our silly astronaut costumes for Halloween.

VANEK SMITH: This actually happened.

SMITH: It is true. I expensed them to NPR. We start the countdown, and we see if the PLANET MONEY satellite will achieve its destiny 300 miles up in the sky, 17,000 miles per hour around the Earth, a beacon for podcasts everywhere.


VANEK SMITH: If you're enjoying the series, give us a shout. We would love to hear from you. We are @planetmoney on pretty much all social media.

SMITH: You know how the theme of this whole series is creating satellites that are small and nimble and then launching them? Well, the PLANET MONEY podcast itself has created a different kind of satellite, a brand-new podcast. It's called The Indicator. It's short - about five minutes - and nimble. And it tells you something about a number in the news. And Stacey, you are one of the fine hosts of the program.

VANEK SMITH: That is true. It is PLANET MONEY's quick take on the news. Check it out. You can subscribe now on your favorite pod device.

SMITH: It's called The Indicator. Subscribe now. Our space series producer is Elizabeth Kulas with help today from Sally Helm. Our senior producer is Alex Goldmark. And our editor is Bryant Urstadt.

VANEK SMITH: Special thanks today to Catherine Moreau Hammond, who helped set up our trip to Rocket Lab and Nick Allain at Spire.

SMITH: And we are reminding people, especially this month, please donate to your local member station. We love making this podcast, and they help make it possible. Visit to give. And then you can tell us you donated and why on social media with the hashtag #WhyPublicRadio.

I'm Robert Smith.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Thanks for listening.


SMITH: I have here, Stacey - it has just been delivered - a box. And inside is oh, oh - oh, oh, oh...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh, it's the patches.

SMITH: We have...


SMITH: We have a shipment of PLANET MONEY patches. We've talked about this. There's a squirrel. There's a picture of our satellite.

VANEK SMITH: These are beautiful.

SMITH: There is the motto, Per Ardua Ad Astra.

VANEK SMITH: There is gold thread. The stars are, like, sparkly.

SMITH: And here's the deal. We have a limited number of these patches, and you can get one of them on our website for the Space series,

VANEK SMITH: Go now and avoid FOMO - FOMOP (ph) - fear of missing out on patches. Right?

SMITH: Exactly. Instructions and conditions are on the website.


SMITH: They told me I had to say that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.