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Rocket Lab Electron launch
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket rises from its New Zealand launch pad. (Rocket Lab via Twitter)

Rocket Lab says its first Electron rocket “made it to space” after a test launch from a New Zealand pad, marking a big step toward its goal of putting payloads into orbit for $5 million.

Liftoff came at 4:20 p.m. Thursday New Zealand time (9:20 p.m. PT Wednesday), after earlier opportunities had to be passed up due to weather concerns.

In a statement, Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said the rocket achieved an outer-space altitude but fell short of going orbital.

“It was a great flight,” Beck said. “We had a great first-stage burn, stage separation, second-stage ignition and fairing separation. We didn’t quite reach orbit, and we’ll be investigating why. However, reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our program, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business.”

Beck didn’t say exactly how high the rocket rose, but the internationally accepted altitude for outer space is 100 kilometers, or 62 miles.

The Los Angeles-based company built its first launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula – in part because Beck is a New Zealander, and in part because the licensing requirements and operating conditions were commercially advantageous.

The $5 million target price for an Electron launch to sun-synchronous orbit would compare favorably with the prices quoted by other launch providers, even SpaceX, as long as you don’t need to launch more than 330 pounds or so (150 kilograms).

To drive down the cost of access to space, the Electron takes advantage of several technologies that might be considered experimental for the space business, including carbon-composite construction of its core and 3-D printing for most of the parts of its Rutherford rocket engine.

U.S. authorities have cleared Rocket Lab’s New Zealand facility for launching U.S. payloads, but this first mission was meant to be merely a test, with no paying customers. As a joke, the rocket was nicknamed “It’s a Test.”

Once the 56-foot-tall rocket has been tested sufficiently, it could be used to put NASA-backed nanosatellites into orbit, and send Moon Express’ lander on the first leg of its potentially prize-winning journey to the lunar surface. Seattle-based Spaceflight has already reserved a dedicated-rideshare launch next year.

In March, Rocket Lab reported that it had raised $75 million in a Series D financing round, resulting in a unicorn-level valuation of more than $1 billion. Investors include Data Collective, Promus Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners and K1W1.

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