At the time American small rocket launch company Rocket Lab achieved "space unicorn" status, this was something of a feat.

Not only was Rocket Lab only the second privately owned space company after SpaceX to ever pass $1 billion in private market valuation, it was the first such company to pass $1 billion in valuation...before ever launching a rocket into space.

Rocket Lab was quick to rectify that. Two months after reaching its $1 billion valuation, Rocket Lab sent an Electron rocket to the edge of space in May 2017, only failing to maintain enough speed to stay in orbit. A second attempt in January 2018 did attain the requisite velocity, and it successfully deployed a payload of three CubeSats to orbit -- Rocket Lab's first orbital mission.

Rocket Lab LTD logo with stylized red rocket flame on left

Rocket Lab rocketed back into orbit last week -- for only the second time ever. Image source: Rocket Lab.

Third time's the charm

Now, Rocket Lab has done it again. On Sunday, the company launched a third Electron rocket, including its first commercial payload of six small satellites paid for by customers including Spire Global, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, and Fleet Space Technologies. Now, six small CubeSats is nowhere near as much cargo as the Electron can carry fully loaded, so Rocket Lab presumably wasn't able to charge its full rate for this Electron launch ($6.5 million).

But it's a start.

Rocket Lab says the third launch marked its entry into "high frequency launch operations." And yes, some might argue that almost any acceleration in launch cadence would qualify as "high frequency" relative to the one-launch-every-10-months rate Rocket Lab is currently running. However, Rocket Lab does indeed appear to be stepping up the pace.

Its next launch is planned to take place just one month from now, when Rocket Lab sends up an "ELaNa" launch of educational CubeSats for NASA in December. In 2019, Rocket Lab is aiming to conduct 16 launches -- more than once per month. By the end of 2020, the company says it hopes to be launching "every week."

What it means to investors

I have to admit: When the news broke last year that Rocket Lab's investors (which include financial backing from Lockheed Martin) were valuing the company at $1 billion -- with Rocket Lab having not conducted even one single orbital launch yet -- I thought that sounded a little optimistic. Now, however, with three successful space launches under its belt, and not a single launch failure (albeit the first mission may be termed a "mission failure" for falling short of actual orbit), it's hard to see Rocket Lab as anything less than the undisputed leader in the nascent business of using small rockets to put even smaller satellites into orbit.

Other companies are still gunning for this market, make no mistake -- Vector, Virgin Orbit, and Stratolaunch, to name just a few. Vector in particular is one of the pioneers in this market. It raised more than $92 million in private funding (as of October, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence), and being in preparation to launch its first orbital rocket in December, it probably should be considered in second place behind Rocket Lab -- assuming its launch comes off as planned.

Most importantly to investors, Vector CEO Jim Cantrell recently told CNBC that he plans to be "leading" the race to bring these small companies public, with an IPO probably happening within the next three years. Seeing as none of the other rocket companies has made public any similar plans to go public (yet), we'll be watching Vector's launch attempt carefully next month -- and perhaps, watching its IPO three years after that.

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