It's (Not) Rocket Science
Julie Cleaver talks to the Vice President of Global Operations and three AUT grads working at New Zealand’s only rocket company, Rocket Lab, to find out how they got there, and where they’re going. Illustration by Hope McConnell.
When thinking of space technology, my brain immediately goes to the 1960s. Back then, space tech was heavily invested in by both the US and the Russian governments. War-mongering motivations aside, it’s pretty cool to think that in 1969, before we even had the internet, humans walked on the moon. It’s now been nearly 50 years since Apollo 11, and it’s easy to think that space technology has continued to improve, just because it’s technology and of course it’s always getting better because that’s what it does. But it hasn’t. As a collective, the world has lost interest in space technology, hence funding has decreased and hence our understanding of it has barely increased. That’s why when I heard of Rocket Lab, a New Zealand-based company that doesn’t explore outer space but sends satellites into earth’s orbit, I was inspired and intrigued, to say the least, and needed to know more.
A Lightening Fast Introduction
Founded by Kiwi engineer Peter Beck back in 2006, Rocket Lab is a start-up that launches small satellites into earth’s orbit. Although the company has been around since 2006, it only put its first satellite into orbit this year. Because of this and its start-up status, the company has relied on investor funding to keep it afloat, as it hasn’t been making money. In the past 12 years, it has managed to round up an impressive $148 million USD of funding to date, making the company worth a total of $1 billion (USD).
If you talk to people who have tried making start-ups, they will often complain about how difficult finding funding is, especially in New Zealand. But it’s easy to see how Beck gathered so much money, as saying “I’m inventing a rocket company” and then actually doing it is pretty damn cool, and something that would gather attention.
With this investment money, Rocket Lab has been working on creating smart and cheap ways to put a satellite into orbit. To do this, it came up with a technology called the ‘Electron’ rocket, which was the first battery-powered rocket used for commercial launches to space. A lot of major global players have taken a shining to this invention, and Rocket Lab’s customers now include big wigs like NASA, and also a bunch of small start-ups. In general, organisations will purchase satellite launches if they are looking to either conduct scientific research, such as collecting weather or marine data, provide internet, position (GPS) or collect images of earth for whatever reason.
I spoke to the Vice President of Global Operations for Rocket Lab and one of its first employees, Shaun O’Donnell, on the phone. He has a background in electronic and avionics engineering and was working as a contractor when a work colleague, Peter Beck, came to him with the idea to start a rocket company. “And I thought, sure, that sounds like a fun thing to do!” Shaun and one other person jumped onboard, and the three of them worked together. The company then grew from the three of them to six people and stayed at that number for several years. However, the company grew substantially after 2013 (the start of the Electron project) and it now has around 220 employees around the world.
Shaun was nice to talk to and had an altruistic outlook, and he told me about some of the positive stuff Rocket Lab was capable of achieving, including enabling companies to map methane levels to constantly monitor climate change, monitor deforestation through images, and more. “There’s a lot of great ideas out there and it’s really about enabling those people and giving them the opportunity to get their devices on orbit,” he said.
To Infinity and Beyond
In terms of the company’s vision, Shaun said it’s all about making space available to a wider pool of players so that more positive and awesome stuff can be achieved. They also hope to advance the technology in general for the greater good of humankind. “It all comes back to achieving that main mission statement which is to democratise space and enable humanity. It’s all about what we’re gonna achieve in the greater world, it’s not directly what we’re doing here and now, it’s about creating that capability and actually achieving that and working with a great bunch of people to make that happen.”
On a less grand level, they also hope to start making some money, ideally soon.
A Galaxy of Opportunity – AUT Grads
Rocket Lab’s positive goals, innovative technology and the pure fact that it is a rocket company makes it seem like a pretty ideal place to work. And luckily for you, they like hiring AUT grads. Although Shaun said he doesn’t have a preference as to what university people come from or whether they even have a university education at all. He did state that: “I think AUT has certainly got a background of producing people with a lot of practical skills, and as an institution you guys focus on that side of it, which I think is really helpful.”
I got in touch with three AUT graduates who currently work at Rocket Lab to find out about what it’s like and how they got the job. One of the grads, Chloe Lamb, is a design graduate and works in the position of Brand and Digital Media Development. The other two graduates are engineers; Jonathan Currie works as a GNC Software Engineer and Ritankar Chakraborty works as a Production Manufacturing Engineer. Over the MoonThe first overwhelming similarity I noticed in the graduates' perspectives was their absolute passion and excitement about the company and their jobs. Chloe said, “When you help launch rockets for a living, nothing else can really top that!” In terms of why, she said working towards an altruistic goal that will better humanity is difficult to beat. “Being part of a journey so much bigger than you, changing the way we access space and using it to better the lives of everyone here on earth – it’s pretty exciting.” Pretty exciting indeed.
When asked what motivates Jonathan to be part of Rocket Lab, he gave this epic answer: “What we do makes history, literally.”
For Ritankar launch day is easily the most exciting part of his job. He also said name-dropping your position is a bonus. “Casually slipping your profession as an aerospace engineer in a conversation is fun – as long as you’re not obnoxious about it!”
Company Culture – A Black Hole of Time?
Positive and grand aspirations are what drives many tech companies to success, as its employees can’t help but get crazily inspired. However, this style of company can also be associated with working massively long hours, having no work-life balance and in some cases turning a bit cult-like (Google, anyone?). When asked if Rocket Lab had anything like this going on, Shaun said people are not forced to work long hours and only put in the extra time if they love it and want to do it.
“Really the kind of hours are generated by the people. We do not demand that people work these long hours. People are really enthusiastic about their work – they want to make Rocket Lab successful, and they do whatever it takes. So I think that’s more the culture. It’s not forced labor, it’s an enjoyment thing as well. People want to do it.” When hearing about the AUT graduates' different work schedules, it seemed to reflect this sentiment, with Jonathan saying he starts at 7:30am and works until 6:30pm most days, and Chloe saying she starts a little later at around 8/8:30am. Also, the culture of Rocket Lab was described using the word ‘fun’ by all the graduates. Ritankar said something similar to the others, which is: “Knowing you helped put a rocket in space – it’s a feeling that can’t be described. We’re all working towards the same goal of putting a vehicle in space, so the team is very supportive, approachable, friendly and fun.”
An Atomic Level – What They Do Every Day
In terms of what they do while at work, Chloe said her job involves all things brand-related, which could be anything from designing merchandise and the website, through to organising a photo shoot and video collateral. In terms of what Ritankar’s role involved, he said that as a manufacturing engineer, he is responsible for acting as a bridge between the designers, assembly technicians (the folks on the production line building the rocket) and the suppliers. This year he said he is focusing on building infrastructure and implementing procedures around the Electron to allow for a smooth process without too much human interaction.
And for Jonathan’s role, he said his typical day involves, “Developing new software modules, analysing flight data, testing numerical models, optimising deployment strategies, problem-solving simulation results, and many more challenging and rewarding tasks.”
Shoot for the Stars
The one piece of advice I heard from everyone I spoke to at Rocket Lab was to get involved in your own projects. As Shaun mentioned, the company looks for super smart people, but grades are not necessarily a prime indication of that. “A big part of what I think is successful for people applying is those who attach portfolios with their CVs, so it’s not just ‘hey I’ve done this’ it’s ‘hey, this is what I do in my spare time, I’ve created this project, I’ve made this website’... It’s great to see those sorts of things.”
Additionally, Jonathan said for AUT students wanting a job at Rocket Lab, industrial experience is a must. “You need good grades, but also to demonstrate application of the knowledge you have gained.” And Ritankar recommended reading about the ideologies and principles of existing space programmes around the world. He also said subscribing to tech magazines and reading about what’s happening and keeping up-to-date with engineering principles is a good idea. Finally, he gave a solid piece of advice that the engineering students will love: “Learn the nitty gritty principles of engineering that you don’t learn reading reports or designing parts on Solidworks in the office. Get out in the field and work with the technicians who understand the woes and challenges of building something in real life, which is easily achieved on CAD Softwares or in an instruction booklet.”
Finally, and this is a special piece of advice for you, for making it to the bottom of the feature: Rocket Lab hire interns.
Contact them through the ‘General Applications’ page on their website (www.rocketlabusa.com/contact/). Internships typically open in August and will be advertised on their website around then.