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What you need to know about Rocket Lab, SpaceX’s biggest rival

Within the private space industry, SpaceX (founded by the infamous Elon Musk) seems to get most of the limelight, which isn’t actually all that fair. Blue Origin, backed by its own billionaire founder Jeff Bezos has long been SpaceX’s main competitor, albeit slightly lagging competitor even if it was founded two years before the former. Now however, they may both need to step aside because a brand new rocket, called Neutron, is coming for number one position.

Rocket Lab, the aerospace manufacturer that created Neutron, was originally founded in New Zealand and is now headquartered in Long Beach, California. The company, as does SpaceX, regularly goes to orbit with its flagship rocket called Electron, which has flown 18 times in under four years, boasting almost 100 satellite deliveries into space. On 1 March, 2021, Rocket Lab unveiled Neutron, its latest rocket, which is 40 metres tall and is able to carry 20 times the weight Electron can. This enables it to enter markets that focus on larger satellites and mega-constellation launches, as well as future robotics missions to the Moon and possibly Mars.

Rocket Lab’s merger with Vector

According to the MIT Technology Review, Rocket Lab says Neutron will be designed for human spaceflight as well. The company calls it a “direct alternative” to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, proving that smaller launch companies can gain territory where SpaceX plays. The dream to take on this position within the market is being helped by Rocket Lab’s merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation—which is a type of company (special purpose acquisition company or SPAC) that allows other business to go public without an IPO—will allow Rocket Lab to benefit from an enormous influx of money, pushing its new found value to $4.1 billion.

As part of the merger, Rocket Lab will receive about $750 million in fresh capital as well as $320 million from Vector Acquisition and $470 million from private investment public equity (PIPE). Upon the deal’s closure, which is expected to be in the second financial quarter, Rocket Lab will list on Nasdaq under the ticker ‘RKLB’. Rocket Lab’s CEO Peter Beck recently told the Observer that “The majority of folks running space companies are billionaires, If you have access to those kinds of capital, it kind of negates the necessity to raise money on the public markets.”

Beck publicly announced on Monday 1 March that “This milestone accelerates Rocket Lab’s ability to unlock the full potential of space through our launch and spacecraft platforms and catalyses our ambition to create a new multi-billion-dollar business vertical in space applications.”

Both SpaceX and Rocket Lab invest in cheaper spaceflight through the use of lower cost materials as well as reusable systems—just like the first-stage booster of the SpaceX Falcon 9, Neutron’s will be designed in the same way and purposed to land vertically on an ocean platform, and a debut flight may be launched as early as 2024.

All in all, Neutron’s journey is looking a lot like the SpaceX Falcon 9 in many ways, although for now SpaceX remains ahead because of the sheer enormity of its funding, fame and technological advancements. However, it doesn’t just have Rocket Lab on its tail, there are many other smaller and privately-owned companies with their eyes up high as well. “There are some things we said we would never do, but we are going to build a big rocket,” Beck said, and I have no doubt that he will.

What does the SpaceX Starship landing mean for space travel?

When it comes to SpaceX’s recent achievements, a vehicle called (fittingly) Starship, that the company has been developing with the sole purpose of sending astronauts to the Moon, Mars and other exotic destinations, has after much, much trial and error, landed safely after a high altitude flight. It did however blow up ten minutes after landing from what appeared to have been a methane leak, but the mission of landing safely was still met. SpaceX has finally proven that Starship can indeed fly high, and land in one safe piece.

Thankfully, there will be more testing before actual humans are stuffed into it, but Musk is most certainly closer to flying Starship into space sometime in 2021, and he expresses hopes of launching people to Mars by 2026, possibly even 2024, “If we get lucky.” Yikes.

A question on my mind however is, in a generation to come, will we still be looking at stars from Earth, or somewhere else? Space tourism is still very much in its infancy, but at the rate of space innovation this far, we may all be booking Venus for our Christmas getaways.

How would language change if some of us moved into the interstellar?

Imagine Noah’s ark, but floating in a sea of stars. If worse comes to worst and we really do have to abandon Earth, we’ll have to take our generation with us in order to save the next—the new generation would then become the ‘generation ship’. In order for us to save the human race,  a variation of ages would be sent to space. How could a potential move to space alter the way we speak?

First things first, we would need to take our environment with us. Everything will be on board—everything alive, that is. Maybe we’d be allowed to bring the odd memorabilia, but all packing has a priority order as we know, meaning that the heavy bits and pieces at the bottom of your shopping bag would usually go first. In this case, other than ourselves, the minuscule would take a predominant lead with bacteria, seeds and gases.

The long journey we would be embarking on also means that we would inevitably evolve over time. People will continue to be born, raised and, eventually, die. Interstellar travellers would probably have a lot less space to live their lives. Biologically, this could lead to all kinds of issues or mutations that cannot be foreseen. One other thing in particular will have to evolve too: language.

A team of linguistics professors, Andrew McKenzie and Jeffrey Punske, published an ongoing study based on Language Development during Interstellar Travel, in the April issue of Acta Futura, the journal of the European Space Agency’s Advanced Concepts Team.

In the study, they discuss how languages evolve over time as communities grow isolated from each other. In this case, our entire population couldn’t possibly fit on the ship—which sparks another discussion altogether—we would have to leave humans behind. If the ship were to come back to Earth, would the two groups still be able to understand each other, having evolved separately?

One would hope that Earth and the vessel would keep in contact with each other, but time warps in space, so communication of any kind will eventually lag. “If you’re on this vessel for 10 generations, new concepts will emerge, new social issues will come up, and people will create ways of talking about them and these will become the vocabulary particular to the ship. People on Earth might never know about these words unless there’s a reason to tell them. And the further away you get, the less you’re going to talk to people back home. Generations pass, and there’s no one really back home to talk to,” explains McKenzie.

The paper is concluded by the statement that on the generation ship “Eventually, the language or languages of the crew will diverge from those on Earth. If they start out with multiple languages, those will perhaps converge towards each other,” whereas on Earth, the opposite may happen. Language is formed by finding mutual understandings for the purpose of communication or translation. So, with a significant sum of our population subtracted and shipped away, the geography of our population would be dispersed further. The world as we know it would be, for a time, underpopulated—which may lead to more distinct language barriers and divergence.

We could argue that because of the internet, distance doesn’t control our differences in language as much as it would have in the past. Would the generation ship evolve technologically faster than Earth? It’s hard to decide without knowing exactly what resources they would discover out there  compared to our current rate of advancement.

Time on our beloved planet has proven thus far that most of the imaginable is possible. What’s stopping us from imagining a little more? Furthering our understanding is arguably humankind’s greatest trait, but it’s also the misunderstandings that push our drive to understand further. We’re aiming high to test this out, quite literally. Turns out science and fiction really are yin and yang, but their language is different.