Is Rocket Lab the new SpaceX? The Electron VS Falcon
Articles Blog

Is Rocket Lab the new SpaceX? The Electron VS Falcon

January 15, 2020

Hi, it’s me, Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut! What rocket has 9 engines on its first stage,
is built by a privately owned aerospace company, uses the most advanced manufacturing techniques
available, is one of the cheapest rides to space and has a body that’s almost entirely
made out of carbon fiber? If you said SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket you’d
be wrong! (its body made out of aluminum) Move over SpaceX, there’s a new kid on
the block! Well, maybe don’t move over, but pull up a chair
to the orbital class rocket table! That’s right, Rocket Lab has officially
become the second privately owned rocket company to achieve orbit with their beautiful Electron
rocket. Today we’re going to give you a deep run
down on some of the exciting features about the Electron, then we’re going to compare
it to similar rockets including other upcoming small sat rockets, and past small sat rockets
like SpaceX’s Falcon 1. We’re even going to throw in a Falcon 9
for comparison to see which rocket takes the cake for the cheapest ride to space with a
cost per kilogram comparison. Oh, and I mean it when I say cake, I had this
made for the winner. Let’s get started! On January 21st, 2018, Rocket Lab officially
became the second private company to make it into orbit on private funds, and the first
private company to launch something into orbit from a private launch site, launching their
Electron rocket from their gorgeous launch pad located on the north island of New Zealand
on the Mahia Peninsula. The mission was cheekily named “still testing”,
a fun follow up to their first test flight of the electron called “It’s a test”
and their upcoming launch will be called “It’s Business time.” I love that. Not only was the mission a perfect success
on just their second attempt at an orbital flight, but they even stowed away and tested
a secret kick stage that allows for flexibility in satellite deployment. It all went off perfectly and is incredibly
impressive! And to top it ALL OFF, Rocket Lab went even
one step further and included ANOTHER secret item inside the payload fairing, a little
treat for all of us humans down here on Earth called Humanity Star. Ok, so they basically launched a disco ball
that would be highly reflective and due to its spin would create a beautiful blinking shooting
star when viewed under the right conditions here on Earth. Unfortunately it’ll only stay in orbit for
a couple months after it launched, so by the time you’re watching this, it’ll probably
be too late to see it. Actually as I’m editing this, I just found
out it deorbited today, Thursday, March 22nd, 2018. Rest in pieces Humanity Star. The company is already full of fun, young
and fresh aerospace culture, again, akin to SpaceX. For instance they made T-Shirts from this
quote – “As in do you want to hold at t minus 18 or
20?” “I never want to hold again” Ok, now before we get into the awesome Electron
rocket that completed this exciting feat, let’s do a quick summary on who Rocket Lab
is. Rocket Lab is a United States aerospace manufacturer
who’s funded entirely by private investment from backers. Their CEO and CTO, Peter Beck, founded the
company in 2006. A fellow New Zealander named, uh, Mark…. Mark… Rocket… No seriously. Mark Rocket was a seed investor and co-director
from 2007 until 2011. What a fitting name. Rocket Lab’s goal is to provide a dedicated
launch vehicle for the growing small satellite and cubesat market. Typically, smaller satellites have to hitch
a ride on a bigger rocket and they take a back seat in priority as well. A good example of a secondary smallsat payload
getting the short end of the stick is SpaceX’s fourth Falcon 9 mission, CRS-1, which launched
in October of 2012. SpaceX launched their first contracted Dragon
Capsule stuffed with supplies to the International Space Station, but they had a secondary payload
of an Orbcomm satellite that weighed only 172 kgs or 379 pounds. One of the 9 Merlin engines on the first stage
of the Falcon 9 failed on ascent, which resulted in the secondary payload failing to enter
its proper orbit and due to International Space Station visiting vehicle safety rules,
SpaceX wasn’t allowed a chance to boost the secondary payload into its proper orbit,
which resulted in its loss and reentry just four days later. So Rocket Lab’s business case is to cater
to this market that previously hasn’t had very good options other than ride sharing. Rocket Lab plans to launch around 50 times
a year and they say they’re licensed to fly every 72 hours which is 120 times a year,
making for great flexibility and opportunities for these smaller payloads. With this increased launch cadence, Rocket
Lab also says they have an incredibly agile approach to booking a flight. RocketLab can fulfill a launch in weeks rather
than months or YEARS for more traditional aerospace companies… Now we’re talking! Speaking of flexibility, they can also launch
their Electron rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida, or the Pacific Spaceport complex
in Alaska if the customer would need those options. So you might be asking, what the heck has
Rocket Lab been up to since their founding in 2006??? Well, in 2009 Rocket lab became for the first
private company in the Southern Hemisphere to reach space with their Atea-1 sounding
rocket. This thing was tiny, basically a giant hobby
store model rocket only capable of launching 2kgs or 4.4 pounds into space on a quick suborbital
hop… After just one launch, Rocket Lab decided
to move onto the next thing. The rocket that followed is the Electron,
and it is awesome. Here’s a quick rundown. The Electron is a 2 stage orbital rocket which
uses RP-1 fuel and Liquid Oxygen for its propellant, which is very common among rockets such as
Russia’s Soyuz rocket, the Saturn V, SpaceX’s Falcon 9, ULA’s Atlas V, the first stage
of Orbital ATK’s Antares and many, many more. The Electron uses 9 Rutherford engines on
the first stage, and one vacuum optimized Rutherford engine on the upper stage. This is the same configuration as SpaceX who
uses 9 of their Merlin engines on the first stage, and one vacuum-optimized Merlin engine
on the upper stage of their Falcon 9 rocket. The Rutherford is an awesome little engine. Instead of using gas generator turbo pumps
which burn fuel and oxidizer to pressure feed the combustion chambers like virtually all
other rocket engines ever, the Rutherford uses electric motors to spin the pumps. This has a few cool advantages, one, it’s
awesome. RIGHT? It’s like a hybrid rocket engine! And I’m thinking less Toyota Prius, more
La Ferrari on the cool hybrid scale. Two, the engines are easy to start up and
throttle, replacing hardware with software. I love that. And three, Rocket Lab claims they reduce mass
compared to a more traditional gas generator. The next point might sound good, but it might
not be very good the more you think about it. Instead of burning rocket fuel to power the
pumps, it just uses batteries! That’s great, right? No need to waste fuel spinning the pumps! Well, there’s actually some disadvantages
here. For one, electric batteries, despite great
improvements lately in density and power output, are still WAY behind the energy density of
rocket fuel. That means in order to get the same amount
of energy from a pack of a lithium polymer batteries, it would weigh more than just having
that amount of extra fuel on board. The other problem is when a battery is discharged,
it still weighs the same amount, and therefore it’s just dead weight once it’s been expended. Unlike propellant, which when in the process
of being used up by those gas generators is literally thrown out the back of the rocket,
thereby making the rocket continually lighter and that means there’s less mass for the engines
to have to push around. Ah but here’s a cool caveat. Rocket Lab came up with a wonderful solution
to this problem to help offset that downfall. On the upper stage of the Electron, there
are a few banks of batteries that detach when they’re depleted. Freeing up the dead weight! Brilliant! The Rutherford engine is also almost entirely
3D printed using an electron beam melting process to save time and money. They can print a rocket engine in just 24
hours. The cool tech doesn’t end there! The main body of the rocket and the fuel tanks
are made out of an advanced carbon composite material. This is very hard considering how cold liquid
oxygen is and how it tends to not play nicely with carbon fiber. But it’s lightweight and strong and helps
make the Electron very mass efficient. Rocket Lab also takes another page from SpaceX’s
playbook by making their own flight computers in house. This allows them to make highly customizable,
small and common avionics hardware. Lastly, we learned that not only did the Electron
perform perfectly as planned, it actually exceeded public expectations by testing out
a kick stage on their successful mission which Rocket Lab later announced was a complete
success. Their kick stage consists of a small 3D printed
engine called the Curie, which produces a modest 120 Newtons or about 27 pounds of thrust and
runs on a “green” mono prop fuel. What’s a kick stage? A kick stage is like a mini upper stage. It’s normal for rockets to deploy their
payloads into an elliptical orbit, meaning the orbit looks like an oval instead of a
circle. The spacecraft then normally has to circularize
itself using its own onboard thrusters which are often very underpowered, time consuming
and can detract from the lifespan of the mission. So a kick stage simply does one final burn
at the highest point of the orbit to put the payload into a final circular orbit, leading
to a lot of flexibility, and increasing the options of where the Electron can deliver
the payload. BONUS STAGE! It can also help deliver multiple payloads
to multiple destinations. And as if ALL of this wasn’t enough, Rocket
Lab even makes their own cubesat dispensers in house! It’s called Maxwell, and it’s quite beautiful. Are you excited yet? Well, I think it’s time to do a side by
side comparison of the Electron vs some other smallsat launchers past, present and future. So to start off the comparison, let’s talk
about some competition. Beginning with maybe the Electron’s most
direct competitor, the Vector-R made by a US company called Vector Space Systems. The Vector-R is in the testing phase and has
only launched a pair of test flights. The Vector-R has yet to attempt an orbital
flight, but hopes to attempt one mid 2018 from their launch pad in Virginia known as
MARS Pad 0B. Next we have Orbital ATK’s air-launched
Pegasus launch system. That’s right, air launched baby! This is a rocket that’s carried up to 12
km’s or 40,000 ft by an L-1011 jet where it’s then released and shoots off into orbit. It was first launched in 1990 and is still
in operation today. Next we have another air-launched concept
rocket called the Bloostar by a Spanish Company Zero to Infinity. This is one of my favorite future smallsat
launch vehicles. It’s a rocket that’s a donut, with another
donut inside and then a muffin inside that that’s carried up to above 99% of the atmosphere
to 30 km’s or 19 miles in altitude by a large high altitude balloon where it’s then
released and shoots off into orbit. I’ll do a video in the future about air-launched
vehicles, because I think they’re super cool and it’s a question a lot of people
ask often, “why don’t they just launch a rocket from a balloon or jet?”… So stay tuned, or if you’re watching this
in the future and I’ve already shot it, it’ll appear here in a YouTube card. And last we have a former smallsat rocket,
the Falcon 1. The Falcon 1 was SpaceX’s first rocket. It was the first rocket to reach orbit by
a private company on its fourth launch attempt in 2008. It only launched one more time in 2009 before
Spacex moved on to its big brother, the Falcon 9. So first let’s line up these rockets in
a side by side in length comparison. The Electron stands at 17 meters long, compared
to the Vector-R at 12 meters, the bloostar which is around 3 meters, the pegasus which
is 16.9 meters and the Falcon 1 which was 21 meters tall. Next let’s check out their width. The Electron is 1.2 meters wide same as the
Vector-R, the Bloostar is just over 2 meters wide, the pegasus 1.3 meters, and the Falcon
1 which was 1.7 meters wide. So how heavy of a payload can each system
deliver to Low Earth Orbit? The Electron can launch 225 KG, the Vector-R
50 KG, the Bloostar, 75 KG, the Pegasus 443 KG and the Falcon 1 670 KG. So now for the big, or hopefully small question,
price. The Electron is $5 million, the Vector-R $1.5
million, the Bloostar $2.5 million, the Pegasus $40 million and the Falcon 1 would cost around
$7.5 million in today’s money. Now for the fun part. $ per KG. The Electron costs $22,222 per KG, the Vector-R
$30,000 per KG, the Bloostar $25,000 per KG, the Pegasus $90,000 per KG and the Falcon
1 would be $11,194 per KG. Let’s see those in order of $ per KG ratio. Some notes about these numbers. Number one, of all these options, only the
Electron and Pegasus are CURRENTLY available. I expect Bloostar and Vector-R to be available
to customers here soon, but if you want to book a dedicated launch vehicle today for
your smallsat, it really does look like the Electron is a fantastic option. Also, don’t take my cost per KG as stone
cold fact because it was nearly impossible to find quotes to compare the exact same orbital
parameters, so these are just decent estimates. Earlier, we compared the Electron to SpaceX’s
Falcon 9 rocket due to their similar engine configurations. So just for funsies, let’s just put these
two vehicles side by side to compare them, shall we? Woah. The Falcon 9 is huge! Standing at 70 meters or 230 feet tall, it
is a significantly larger vehicle than the Electron which is at 17 meters or 56 feet
tall. The Falcon 9 is also just over 3 times wider
at 3.66 meters or 12 feet wide to the Electron’s 1.2 meters or 4 feet wide. Now here’s where things get kind of silly. The Falcon 9 is capable of putting 22,800
kgs to Low Earth Orbit compared to the Electron’s 225 kgs. The Falcon 9’s launch cost is $62 million
to the Electrons $5 million. So lastly, we get their dollar per KG ratio. Remember, the Electron had an impressive $22,222
per KG to low Earth orbit. But… that’s nothing compared to the Falcon
9 which has a ridiculous $2,719 per KG and that’s without factoring in SpaceX’s future
price drops due to being able to use previously flown launch vehicles which hopefully will
bring the the cost down another 30-50%. So I know this comparison isn’t fair and
it’s not meant to put the Electron down, but for now, SpaceX, you still get the cake. Or what’s left of it… BUT WE CAN’T END THERE. We’re excited about the Electron!! It’s awesome! It launches from the most beautiful place
in the world, it’s carbon fiber, it’s got an awesome hybrid electric turbo pump
and 3D printed engines!! I mean come on. So let’s end with what exciting things Electron
has in store. As we mentioned before, RocketLab’s third
mission will be called “Business Time” and will be launching two Lemur-2 cubesats
for the company Spire Global. The fourth mission will feature a dozen cubesats
for NASA! But one of the most exciting destinations
for an upcoming Electron mission is… You’re not going to believe this… The MOON!! That’s right! The Electron is launching for Moon Express
which is a Florida based company whose goal is to eventually mine the moon! They were competing and the leading contender
to take home the Google Lunar X prize, a 20 million dollar top prize contest that ended
in March of 2018… The award would have gone to the first privately
funded team to land a spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit back high-definition
video and images. Unfortunately, despite trying really hard,
Moon Express and Rocket Lab didn’t make it by then, leaving the prize unclaimed. This will be a mission you absolutely cannot
miss. It’s so cool to think that such a small
launch vehicle is capable of an awesome feat like doing a moon mission. While we’re talking about the future, let’s
talk about the future plans of Electron. I reached out to Rocketlab and asked them
about reusability and any future plans for upgrades or larger launch vehicles. Here’s their response: “Currently, Rocket Lab are focusing on ramping
up production to enable unprecedented launch frequencies and to service the numerous customers
on our launch manifest. Electron was designed from the beginning to
be quick, efficient and low-cost to produce. This path was chosen over pursuing reusability
due to the added research and development time needed, and the importance of wanting
to open up access to space as soon as possible for our customers who (until Sunday) had no
dedicated, affordable orbital launcher. The added mass associated with booster reusability
also impacts the payload capability of small launch vehicles more than larger launchers,
so there are no current plans to pursue reusability in the future.” I get it. They have such a small payload capability
now, adding hardware for reusability would just cut into that already limited payload
mass. And although I agree, they should ramp up
production and get to making some money, I hope that someday they make enough money to
start looking towards bigger and reusable launch vehicles. Besides, their electronic turbo pumps would
make for a very precise, highly controllable throttled rocket engine for propulsive landings. Woah that was a mouth full. Let’s try that again a little simpler Their
engine that has that electric motor would be good at landing a rocket because it is
precise and quick to react to stuff. There. Much better. So all in all Rocket Lab is the new cool kid
on the block in the orbital rocket game. They’ve got an exciting future and are doing
an excellent job of bringing everyone along for the ride. I look forward to seeing much much more from
them! What do you think about Rocket Lab? Are you excited about their Electron rocket? Let me know your thoughts in the comments
below! Also let me know if you have any other questions
about Rocket Lab, the Electron, the Rutherford engine, or anything else space or rocket related! As always, I owe a huge thanks to my Patreon
supporters for helping make this and other Everyday Astronaut content possible. I owe a super special thanks to those Patrons
in our exclusive discord channel and our exclusive subreddit for helping me script and research. If you want to help contribute, please visit Thank you! Don’t forget to check out my web store for
shirts, hats, mugs, prints of rocket launches and original artwork and lots of other fun
stuff at And as always, all the music in my videos
is original. The song in this video is called “Slow Orbit.” Feel free to check it out and download it
for free at Tell a friend! Thanks everybody that does it for me. I’m Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut. Bringing space down to Earth for everyday

Only registered users can comment.

  1. So what happens to the battery packs?
    Do they fall back to earth and pollute the area it hits or pollute the atmosphere.

  2. AWW, just watched your talk yesterday and now noticed the photos on the wall including the "I always knew what I wanted to be…". 🙂

    Also, thanks for pointing out another awesome company I hadn't heard anything about so far!

  3. Am I the only one wondering why Vector and Space X (for the Falcon 1) launched in the middle of very flammable trees? I guess there are no regulations prohibiting that when you own the ground you're doing it on, yet it seems less than ideal in case an unscheduled rapid disassembly occurs…

  4. Here’s the deal why this is bad/ counterproductive. What is the demand for launching satellites or restocking the space station? Exactly, you will have too many companies competing for too few jobs. All that will happen is companies bidding against one another and driving down prices. Pretty soon, there won’t be enough money in the hands of the right company to get to Mars. That’s all I want. Could we please just get to fuc**ng MARS already!!!

  5. A great video. Thanks for the info. I lived through the Mercury and Apollo age and am so excited to be alive during this new age of space exploration. I have high hopes to be alive when SpaceX puts a man or woman on Mars!

  6. insted of deorbiting the kick stage it could be built to be refueled and used on orbit as a tug when the ISS is privatized.

  7. I'm enjoying your videos Tim, thanks.
    Maybe you need to listen to the New Zealand duo Flight of the Concords and their classic, Business time.

  8. Electron when it can reuse boosters: Ah… Blue origin already took the 30 year long hover slam. Screw it, just make it an eternity.

  9. I wonder who the dark horse, the sleeping dragon is, in the industry, that'll surprise all of us?

    God bless, Proverbs 31

  10. 0:58 Who else thought that joke was kind of depressing? I mean, cakes take a while to make. Still funny though.

  11. You just put out click bait that didn't have any invent just the ability to pay you money. Wtf was up with that? No comments were allowed. You should probably take that down. Your content has been amazing before that. I've definitely been sub'd. No longer, for now.

  12. Launching the Pegasus from the L1011 is awesome! I love the L-1011(so under rated and so ahead of its time) and I used to work for ATK so I have a soft spot for them but $40 million over $5 mill for an Electron launch is absurd!!

  13. Have you done any episodes on the James Webb space telescope or would you just talk about the rocketry needed to deploy it?

  14. the Bloostar, based on the figures you provided of $2,500,000 to send 75Kgs into space would be $33,333.33 per kilo — not $25,000 per kilo as you state

  15. Why didn't Launch rocket from a jet / balloon?

    Rockets Are Really HEAVY More than the Maximum Take Off Weight. And need longer Runway And Slow ascent to avoid stalling.

  16. Rocket lab's is 100% proof we are in simulation and the person playing gave up on making good names.

  17. If NASA hated SpaceX

    SpaceX: Yes our Falcon heavy landed back, did you get it!
    NASA: Nope.
    SpaceX: No! our rocket landing was a disaster!
    NASA: Got it.

  18. How capable are their technology compared to ISRO as still lot of small to mediumscale satellites are launched by ISRO. They have a good hold on market. Please explain…

  19. Can you do a video explaining the pre-silicon valley private space flight arena? I'm a bit confused. If Space X and Rocket Lab are the first to achieve private market orbit, whose been launching telecommunications satellites into orbit this whole time?

  20. Since this was made RocketLab has announced its intention to try and reuse the 1st Stage. It'd be interesting to see how this changes the $/kg calculations!

  21. If the turbopump is fully ellectric, the the turbopump itself is not a hybrid (ok splitting hairs here). On the topic of batteries to power the electron rocket, the best choice would not be the famous Lithium-ion batteries from your laptop or phone (or Tesla), but a primary battery (that means it is not rechargeable). Primary batteries are easier to manufacture as a rule and cheaper, and they pack a heavier punch per kilogram of electrode material. S o you would choose e.g. the Lithium-Thionylchloride battery, or a similar high energy density battery. Curious to know what chemistry they are actually using? Do you know? thanks

  22. Are there fundamental reasons why the Rutherford engines are better suited for re-use? I presume the pumps run pretty cold, right?

  23. Couldn’t those little Rutherford motors make a bigger rocket possible that has 3-4-5 stubby stages? Isn’t that interesting?

  24. The falcon 9 could lift a fully fueled electron (12,550 kg) to orbit and still be able to bring 10,150 kg more with it

  25. EV Space unit
    Someone should look at building an EV unit that is about the size of a coffin, which would allow a front door or top door for quick entry, not the long time it takes to put on a spacesuit. It would have 4 outside arms/ hands/ grippers that are remotely controlled from inside so no arm covers or gloves needed or holes thru coffin. Built-in environmental, propulsion and toilet would be on the back for easier service.

  26. You think SpaceX would ever pursue electric fuel pumps like Rocket Lab? Seems like it makes sense. I was watching your video and you were saying how its kinda hard to land with even one engine as you dont just stop, if you stop too early the rocket will start going back up as the lowest throttle it can go will still lift it. I think that in a low gravity environment the risk of that being a problem is even higher, and an electric motor controlling thrust would be quite useful id. Could a SpaceX design be modified to use electric motors or if the design of the entire engine revolved around that?

  27. Re-usable electric engines means you have to carry even more batteries to run those engines all the way back down… lots of extra weight. Probably have to wait for battery tech to improve more

  28. The big question Rocketlab has to answer is if its business model will still be viable once Star Ship is operational. They could basically put dozens of smaller projects into different orbits with just one launch at the cost of ~2 Million Dollars all together. That is 20 bucks per Kilogram of Payload. Granted the 2 Million maybe optimistic but even if its 20 million per launch. That's still only 200 Dollar per kilogram payload. And it's not gonna be a problem to outfit a Starship Cargo Transport with enough extra fuel to deploy dozens of projects onto dozens of different Orbits.

  29. So, i watched back the video, wouldn't the Rutherford engines be good controllable lunar lander rockets? Even if they're expandable they're significantly cheaper to prdouce thanks to 3D printing right?Would be a interessting alternative engine to look into when using a lunar lander (not human rated of course).

  30. This is an older video, but comparing the bulk price of a Falcon 9 to the bulk price of an Electron isn't appropriate… The rideshare price per kilogram for Falcon 9 is much higher than the bulk price. For small sat, the Electron is far superior, and will actually put your satellite into the orbit you want. No need to carry all that propellant as you must with a rideshare, dropping the cost even more.

    All of which Peter has covered in other videos. But I thought I would toss it into this section as well. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *