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Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck cheers the first Electron rocket launch. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab didn’t quite make it to orbit on its first try, but the company’s CEO says he’s “very happy” with the Electron rocket’s performance nevertheless.

“We got a lot further than certainly we expected,” founder and CEO Peter Beck told reporters today, hours after the maiden launch from Rocket Lab’s pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula.

Beck repeatedly stressed that the company still has to analyze the data from the flight. However, he said a preliminary review indicated that the two-stage rocket’s performance was nominal until second-stage fairing separation.

He told GeekWire that the launch team had targeted a 300- to 500-kilometer orbit (200 to 300 miles) for its first test flight, nicknamed “It’s a Test.” Beck estimated that the second stage made it to a height of 250 kilometers (155 miles) before descending again on a suborbital trajectory.

Today Rocket Lab released a video of the countdown and launch that had a decidedly celebratory feel, highlighting the cheers in Mission Control when the rocket rose spaceward:

Beck insisted that the test “puts us in a very, very strong position for the next test flight,” which will be scheduled after the data from the first flight has been fully reviewed.

“The second vehicle is already in the factory,” he said.

Rocket Lab’s plan is to conduct at least two more test flights before trying to send customers’ payloads into orbit. Those customers include NASA, Moon Express, Spire, Planet and Seattle-based Spaceflight.

Beck said the reaction so far from customers has been “ecstatic.” Spaceflight sent along “Congrats!” and “Bravo!” in a pair of tweets. “Great to see the progress!” Jodi Sorensen, Spaceflight Industries’ vice president of marketing and communications, said in yet another tweet.

Video from the first launch was not live-streamed because Rocket Lab wanted to ease the pressure on the launch team, Beck said. “There’s a lot of pressure when the world is watching,” he explained. Future launches are likely to be streamed, he said.

The first launch was postponed several times due to weather, but Beck said Rocket Lab will be less wary about the weather once the flight test program is finished. “There’s no point in pushing to the limit on weather conditions” for test flights, he said.

Beck told GeekWire that he expected the flight program to proceed quickly enough to send Moon Express’ lander on the first leg of its trip to the moon by the end of this year.

Eventually, Rocket Lab aims to send small satellites into orbit at least once a week, at a price as low as $5 million per launch. The company is using cutting-edge technologies such as 3-D printing and carbon-composite fabrication to reduce costs.

In March, Rocket Lab announced a $75 million funding round that set the Los Angeles-based company’s valuation above $1 billion.

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