Rocket Lab is a celebrated New Zealand success story, with a stated mission to open access to space and improve life on Earth. Yet many of its key contracts are with the US military and their suppliers. Ollie Neas reports on the dark side of a local business hero.
Last Friday Rocket Lab announced that it had secured US$140m (NZ$206m) in new funding from a range of investors, including the publicly-owned ACC.
After a launch the Sunday before, this announcement marked the second time in a week that hundreds of international media outlets took notice of Rocket Lab and, by extension, New Zealand.
At home, though, the issue has been whether New Zealand deserves more of the credit for the billion-dollar company’s success, with Chris Keall in the New Zealand Herald querying descriptions of Rocket Lab as an “American start-up”.
However, there is another side to Rocket Lab, one that raises questions about New Zealand’s – and ACC’s – support for the company.
Rocket Lab’s stated mission is to open access to space to improve life on earth. But it’s not just a launcher of commercial satellites. It is also a defence contractor that has worked on contracts with military applications for US defence agencies.
One of its investors is Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest weapons manufacturer. It would also appear the company has links to In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm.
Rocket Lab says that it is committed to using space for peaceful purposes, and that consumers rely on space-based applications funded and operated by the defence sector – like GPS, for example. Peace Advocacy Auckland, the anti-war advocacy group, says that Rocket Lab’s involvement with Lockheed Martin and the US Department of Defense makes it complicit in the arms trade.
Meanwhile ACC’s own investment guidelines prohibit it from investing in Lockheed Martin or its subsidiaries directly due to Lockheed’s involvement in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
Rocket Lab’s link with the CIA’s venture capital firm was revealed in 2016 by US investigative journalism site The Intercept, but has not been reported by the New Zealand media.
Although it operates independently, In-Q-Tel invests on behalf of the CIA and the broader US intelligence community in companies whose products may have national security applications.
A document obtained by The Intercept shows that Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck spoke at a summit of In-Q-Tel portfolio companies in February 2016. Other speakers included then-FBI director James Comey. Beck earlier wrote about Rocket Lab for In-Q-Tel’s quarterly publication in 2015.
In contrast, Lockheed Martin’s investment in Rocket Lab is mentioned routinely in press coverage and was the subject of a jibe by departing Vector chairman Michael Stiassny to the Vector AGM last week.
However, the extent of Rocket Lab’s defence industry work has gone essentially unremarked. Details of this work had been removed from Rocket Lab’s website by the time the regulatory regime enabling the company’s activities in New Zealand came into law last year.
Many of the details are confidential, but documents available online, including archived pages from Rocket Lab’s website, give some insight into the defence work of a company that has marketed itself as a designer and manufacturer of “defence systems”.
Rocket Lab’s life as a defence contractor began in the two years after the launch of the Aotea 1 rocket from Great Mercury Island, near the Coromandel peninsula, in November 2009, when it won contracts from at least three US defence agencies.
One contract was for the Operationally Responsive Space Office – a joint initiative of several space agencies within the US Department of Defense – for Rocket Lab to study a booster, a small electronics system and a launch vehicle to place small-satellites into orbit.
Another contract required Rocket Lab to research high density rocket propellants for the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). ONR is the main research agency for the United States Navy and Marine Corps, while DARPA is the Pentagon agency tasked with developing technologies that “maintain and advance the capabilities and technical superiority of the United States military.”
Annual DARPA expenditure documents show contracts for Rocket Lab valued at US$102,299 in 2010 and US$400,000 in 2011. The documents state that the funding was administered by the “TTO”, DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, whose website describes its mission as “to provide or prevent strategic and tactical surprise with very high-payoff, high-risk development and demonstration of revolutionary new platforms”.
The outcome of the DARPA research was a Viscous Liquid Monopropellant (or VLM) – a rocket fuel with characteristics of both solid and liquid fuels. A US patent for the VLM, filed in March 2012 but not approved until May this year, sets out various potential uses, including as a propellant for sub-orbital airborne missiles.
Rocket Lab demonstrated the VLM in November 2012 to international representatives of “government military agencies”.
In response to questions from The Spinoff last week, Rocket Lab says that the VLM “has not been deployed for use”.
It was around this time that Rocket Lab’s involvement with Lockheed Martin began. In November 2010, Rocket Lab stated that it had supplied Lockheed Martin, along with the Australian Defence Force, with some thermal ablative material – a plastic product that protects metal in high temperatures.
A Rocket Lab press release from June 2012 states that this material had been “selected as an alternative material for thermal protection on Patriot missiles”.
The Patriot Missile is a surface-to-air missile system that has been used by the US, Israeli and Saudi militaries, including in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Lockheed Martin is a major producer of Patriot missiles.
Rocket Lab confirmed to The Spinoff that its ablative material has been “evaluated and qualified for use in high-temperature aerospace applications, including on ground infrastructure for anti-missile systems. Less than 20kg of the ablative material was produced for this.”
One of Rocket Lab’s military projects at this time did receive a degree of media attention.
“Instant Eyes”, the product of a partnership with US defence contractor L2 Aerospace, was an unmanned aerial vehicle launched from a hand-held rocket that provided high-resolution imagery to its users on the ground.
Rocket Lab told The Spinoff that Instant Eyes was intended for use by “first responders requiring real-time situational awareness in scenarios such as forest fires and search and rescue operations”.
However, marketing materials from the time refer to its applications for “tactical missions” and “covert use”, and include images of US soldiers. The Rocket Lab website compared it to other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tools for the battlefield, such as the Pointer, Raven or Predator – all drones used by the US military.
“It’s meant for instant intelligence, so you can get a picture of what’s on the other side of the building or what’s on the other side of the hill,” Lance Lord, the founder of L2 Aerospace and a retired four-star general and former head of Air Force Space Command, told Florida Today at the time.
In March and April 2012 Instant Eyes was tested in preparation for demonstrations to “NATO and US Military users”.
However, Rocket Lab told The Spinoff that it was never deployed to market or used in the field.
Since Lockheed Martin’s investment, Rocket Lab’s work for US military agencies has continued. According to the Federal Procurement Data System, the database that lists significant contracting from the US federal government, Rocket Lab signed deals with agencies of the Department of Defense in September 2015, October 2017 and May 2018.
The 2015 contract, worth US$99,964 for DARPA, required Rocket Lab to demonstrate how a small launch vehicle could use Automated Flight Termination technology, a system to automatically terminate rocket launches, including to protect public safety.
The abstract for the funding indicated the technology might be used in support of the “XS-1 program”, DARPA’s experimental spaceplane that will allow the US military to put satellites into orbit at short notice.
The 2017 contract, worth US$5.7 million for the Air Force Research Laboratory, was for “a prototype project in the area of interest small responsive launch”. No other information is available.
The 2018 contract is the most significant. Worth US$6.5 million, it appears to require Rocket Lab to launch a classified secret DARPA satellite into orbit.
The statement of work for the contract does not detail what the satellite will do, describing it only as a “RF Risk Reduction Deployment (R3D2) spacecraft”. But it does state that the contract performer “will require access and safeguarding for the classified SECRET R3D2 satellite” and that “as a result, the selected performer must have, or otherwise be able to obtain a SECRET Facility Clearance”.
An unclassified DARPA budget justification document explains the agency’s interest in responsive space launches of the kind Rocket Lab might provide.
“A space force structure that is robust against attack represents a stabilizing deterrent against adversary attacks on space assets. The keys to a secure space environment are situational awareness to detect and characterize potential threats, a proliferation of assets to provide robustness against attack, ready access to space, and a flexible infrastructure for maintaining the capabilities of on-orbit assets.”
The document explains that DARPA intends to leverage commercial industry plans to launch small satellites in support of its objectives. Transcripts of the US Congressional Committee on Armed Services outline that Rocket Lab is one of several companies to have met with defence and intelligence agencies to discuss “small Launch-on-Demand missions”.
Speaking to the Committee in May 2017, General John Raymond, the Commander of Air Force Space Command, described one workshop attended by Rocket Lab as being “to gain awareness of industry capabilities and timelines required to execute small Launch-on-Demand missions”, and that it was to be followed by separate meetings with each company to “discuss costs and planning required to meet DOD responsive/rapid launch concepts and desired capabilities”.
Lockheed Martin’s investment in Rocket Lab also appears to be connected to demand from the US government.
In February this year, the general manager of Lockheed Martin Ventures, Chris Moran, told Space News: “We need low-cost access to space and high potential frequency of access, which would open different mission types.
“The US government was pushing us to have that kind of access, so we made that investment in Rocket Lab in their Series B.”
In 2015 Peter Beck told Stuff that Lockheed Martin’s investment would go toward both the Electron rocket programme and other “strategic joint programmes”, but said the details of this were commercially sensitive.
In a statement to The Spinoff, Rocket Lab said that it has no joint strategic projects with Lockheed Martin. It says that Lockheed Martin Space Systems made a minority investment in the company in 2015.
The size of Lockheed Martin’s stake in the company is not public, in part because Rocket Lab USA is incorporated in Delaware, which requires minimal disclosure by companies.
Lockheed Martin was this year awarded a contract by the UK Space Agency to launch rockets from a proposed launch site in Sutherland, Scotland, and has said that it is considering using Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket for launches from the site. Rocket Lab says that it is evaluating the Sutherland site as an additional launch site, among others.
Responding to questions from The Spinoff, Rocket Lab said that its mission is to open access to space to improve life on Earth.
“This means enabling more small satellites to reach orbit and provide crucial data and services that improve the way we understand our planet, how we connect with each other, how we protect people and resources, and how we innovate and explore.
“Many of the space-based applications relied on by consumers today are funded and operated by the defence sector, including systems like GPS (Global Positioning System), which is operated by the US Air Force.
“Rocket Lab is committed to the safe, peaceful and responsible use of space. The company will not launch weapons, nor will it launch payloads that are contrary to national security interests.”
However, peace advocates say that Rocket Lab’s involvement with the defence sector is inconsistent with pursuing peace on Earth.
“For Rocket Lab to contribute to the advancement of humanity they need to get out of the military industrial complex,” said Valerie Morse, a spokesperson for Peace Action Auckland.
“The US Department of Defense is a military agency. As far as the peace movement is concerned the provision of goods and services to the military is an instance of participation in the arms trade.
“I think that most people in New Zealand do not actually support the development of weaponry and particularly do not support the use of public money for the development of US military weapons. That’s really the connection that needs to be made. If Lockheed is involved we are talking about weapons.”
Rocket Lab is not alone among space companies in working for the defence sector. Both Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are undertaking significant contracts for US defence agencies.
But what sets Rocket Lab apart is the support it has received from the New Zealand government both through research and development funding from Callaghan Innovation – of up to $10 million, according to Peter Beck – and now investment from ACC.
ACC’s investment guidelines prohibit it from investing directly in companies involved in nuclear explosive devices, anti-personnel mines, and cluster munitions. Its Direct Investment Exclusions List explicitly prohibits investment in Lockheed Martin or its subsidiaries due to its involvement in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
As international media outlets continue to point out, Rocket Lab is no longer New Zealand’s responsibility alone. Rocket Lab is a chiefly US-owned company. Last month it announced its second launch site would be in the state of Virginia, and that it is eyeing up others in Europe and Asia. Yet while its connections to the US and the defence industry continue to grow, New Zealand remains critical to its operations, as ACC’s investment shows.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.