After Acquiring A Satellite, 'Planet Money' Had To Find The Fuel To Get It In Space

Jan 31, 2018
Originally published on February 6, 2018 1:04 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

NPR's Planet Money team wanted in on a market that is really hot right now - space. And as we heard on the show yesterday, they first managed to borrow a satellite. That didn't do them much good, though, without a rocket to take it to space. Luckily, NPR's Robert Smith knew a guy.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: I met him at a small satellite conference. I mean, the conference was huge. The satellites were small. And while I was walking around, he slides up to me, and he says...

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 with spaceflight.com. There's a boom on in private space flight. Rockets are going up all the time from India, Kazakhstan, the United States. And when the rockets have extra space, a satellite can get a lift.

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: So you've probably heard of SpaceX. They are the cool Tesla of space. Phil can get us room on that. Or if we want more of a dad rocket, Phil suggests one made by 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: Or, Phil says, there's this new company in New Zealand. Think sports car. It's called Rocket Lab.

BRZYTWA: They're the new hotness.

SMITH: Really hot.

BRZYTWA: So hot - so hot right now.

SMITH: Say no more. I get on a plane to Auckland, New Zealand, and right next to the airport, there is a factory with a giant rocket sitting outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

SMITH: Rocket Lab is the new hotness because it's still experimental. They're building super-light, super-cheap rockets to take up all those super-tiny, super-cheap satellites everyone's building, satellites like ours. Inside the factory, the CEO, Peter Beck, shows me around.

PETER BECK: You know, space is kind of viewed as this super romantic place and an 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 - there's fire and excitement, and it's all great, great and wonderful. But at the end of the day, we're a glorified freight company. We take your parcel, and we deliver it.

SMITH: And if you think of a rocket as a UPS truck, it's easy to find ways to make it cheaper. For instance, this rocket tube is made out of carbon fiber. Peter says go ahead. Pick it up.

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

The rocket engines are made with 3-D printers. It is all great in theory. The problem when I visited was they hadn't actually been able to make it work yet. You cannot rush the hotness. So as Rocket Lab was still doing its tests, we got a call with a different opportunity. Remember the dad rocket, the Volvo, Orbital ATK? They had a launch ready to go in California.

This is such a beautiful spot.

And there it is, the Minotaur-C, 10 stories tall.

Holy moly, look at that.

JENNIFER BOWMAN: That's nice.

SMITH: Jennifer Bowman is showing me around. She's with Orbital ATK. Of course, you know, I would like a test drive before I commit the Planet Money satellite to this tube of fire.

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.

SMITH: OK, we'll take it. Tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Five, four, three, two, one...

SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We have ignition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.