Space Base in New Zealand Picked to Start Private Trips to Orbit

New Zealand, known for breathtaking scenery and fine wine, will add one more claim to fame when it becomes home to the world’s first commercial space-launch site later this year.

A U.S. company, Rocket Lab plans to build a base on New Zealand’s South Island from which to loft small satellites into low orbit. The goal is to increase the pace and affordability of sending up imaging and communication gear used for services including weather monitoring, natural disaster management and crop surveillance.

“Creating and operating our own launch site is a necessity to meet the demands of our growing customer manifest,” Chief Executive Officer Peter Beck said Wednesday. “With the launch frequency possible from this site, Rocket Lab is one major step closer to its goal of making space commercially accessible.”

Rocket Lab joins a formidable group of competitors, including Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., seeking to shake up a $6 billion commercial launch business whose crowded schedules can require years-long waits and price tags of $200 million.

Rocket Lab’s all-black Electron booster offers launch for less than $5 million. The company, whose investors include Lockheed Martin, is targeting clients such as university programs and small start-ups, Beck said, and it already has 30 potential clients.

The company didn’t specify how much it was investing in the site, which is due to be completed in the fourth quarter.

Prime Location

New Zealand, which has been used in the past by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, is considered a prime location because rockets launched from that deep in the Southern hemisphere can reach a wide range of Earth orbits.

Rocket Lab’s remote site on the Kaitorete Spit in the Canterbury region also means it has less air and sea traffic, which translates into more frequent launches and economies of scale, the company said. It also will no longer compete for airspace with the U.S. government.

U.S. commercial rocket providers, such as Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., are currently tethered to government-operated launch pads like Florida’s Cape Canaveral, Wallops Island in Virginia and the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX is building a commercial launch site in South Texas that it said should be ready for liftoffs as early as 2016.

Commercial companies have to pay large fees to use those U.S. government sites, according to Marco Caceres, an analyst with consultant Teal Group Corp.

“In the long term it would be beneficial to own your own site,” as long you have enough missions going in and out to make it worth the cost to build, Caceres said in an interview.

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