TEMPERANCEVILLE, Va. – Commercial space company Rocket Lab began construction this week on its new facility, where it will build its 8-ton Neutron rocket capable of launching deep space missions and possibly people.
Rocket Lab frequently launches its small-class rocket, Electron, from its launch site in New Zealand and has another launchpad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. In February, the California-based company announced it would begin manufacturing its next-generation larger rocket, Neutron, in Virginia.
The Neutron manufacturing site is outside the gates of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Less than a year ago, the 28-acre site on Virginia's eastern shore was a chicken farm, and now locals are calling it a "rocket ranch." Neutron will have a dedicated launchpad and landing site on the south end of Wallops Island.
On Monday, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin were at the ground-breaking in Temperanceville for the future site of Rocket Lab’s Neutron Production Complex.
"This is the beginning of a big journey for us," Beck told FOX Weather. "This is the groundbreaking of a brand new rocket factory, and, you know, the rocket will be built here, and Neutron will launch just over there, so it's a big day for the company and the state."
When it's complete, the complex will be approximately 250,000 square feet, including the Launch Control Center. According to Rocket Lab, a robotic production system will be able to create the carbon composite rocket hardware in minutes.
The new facility is expected to bring about 250 jobs to the area. Beck says Rocket Lab will need a broad spectrum of experience levels to operate the Neutron Production Complex.
"Right from very, very high-level PHDs, to technicians and launch consult operators," Beck said. "Really a wide spectrum of opportunities for everybody."
Youngkin said the groundbreaking is an exciting moment for young Virginians whose future the jobs could benefit.
"As we build an education system to support these jobs and these missions of the future, how exciting is that going to be to have it right here where students are studying STEM and have a chance to walk across the street and see a rocket launch," Youngkin said. "This is the future of Virginia."
While Rocket Lab is currently testing its recovery operations of the Electron rocket after launch to re-fly the rocket boosters, Neutron is designed to be fully reusable. Neutron will launch and land from the same launch pad where it can be refurbished and re-flown.
Neutron could begin launching in 2024.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand, engineers are preparing to recover an Electron booster using a helicopter and parachute system for the first time.
After Electron's second stage separates, the first stage will return to Earth and deploy a parachute to slow it down. A helicopter will grab the parachute and carry the booster to a recovery boat.
Rocket Lab plans to attempt its first mid-air rocket catch in April and targets the third quarter of 2022 to begin launching Electron from Virginia.