On Rocket Lab’s next launch to space, the company plans to go through all of the necessary steps to recover one of its rockets after takeoff — except for the very last step of actually catching the vehicle before it hits the ocean. This dress rehearsal should put Rocket Lab on course to save a rocket after an upcoming flight so that the vehicle can be flown again on a future mission.
The move is part of an ongoing quest by Rocket Lab to see if the company can reuse its primary rocket, called the Electron. The company’s end goal is similar to that of SpaceX, which recovers and reuses its rockets after flight. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets target either a landing pad or an autonomous drone ship in the ocean following takeoff.
However, Rocket Lab’s strategy for recovering its rockets is vastly different than SpaceX’s plan. After the company’s Electron rocket finishes its main job in space, the vehicle flips around and performs a controlled dive through Earth’s atmosphere. Rocket Lab refers to this process as getting through “the wall,” as the rocket encounters intense reheating and a buildup of gas and plasma that can easily destroy the hardware. If the Electron makes it through, then it eventually deploys a drogue parachute and a large main parachute. At some point, Rocket Lab will swoop in with a helicopter and grab the parachute, saving the rocket in midair before the vehicle can touch the ocean.
Rocket Lab plans to go through this entire process on its next flight out of the company’s New Zealand launch facility in mid-November — except for the last-minute helicopter catch. The goal is for Electron to perform a controlled splash in the ocean off the coast after gliding down under its parachute. Rocket Lab expects the vehicle to slow down from eight times the speed of sound to just 10 meters per second, or 22 miles per hour at splashdown. Then a Rocket Lab boat will go out to retrieve the rocket and bring it back to the company’s facilities for inspection. “Once we get back into the factory, it’s really, you know, it’s like CSI really,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said during a press call. “We’ll pull it all apart and really, really dig into how well each of the components and the sub-assemblies had performed.”
It should be the most comprehensive test of Rocket Lab’s recovery plan to date. So far, the company has performed two controlled dives into the atmosphere with the Electron, and each rocket successfully made it through the wall intact. But the two rockets ultimately slammed into the ocean, making them hard to thoroughly inspect. Rocket Lab has also practiced catching a falling rocket with one of its helicopters. The company used one helicopter to drop a dummy Electron rocket over the ocean from a high altitude; another helicopter then swooped in and snatched the simulated rocket during its fall.
After that buildup, Beck says the company just needs to do all of the steps one after the other. “Really the last thing to do now is put it all together and go and fly and really see what we’ve got,” he said.
The company plans to do a few of these parachute splashdowns before the helicopters come in so that the engineers can really understand what state the vehicle is in after its return from space. Rocket Lab wants to make sure that the Electron comes back in the best condition possible before the vehicle is snatched out of the air. “When we’ve reached the point where we have something that’s in a condition that we actually... care about — that it doesn’t get wet now — then that’s when we’ll start bringing in the helicopter again,” Beck said.
As is the goal with most reusability efforts, the idea is to save Rocket Lab from having to manufacture new rockets for each new launch. However, Rocket Lab says that the main driver is not necessarily saving money on production costs but on getting to the company’s next launch more quickly. “Even if it’s economically neutral, the fact that we don’t have to build more vehicles in the same factory is a really big advantage.” Beck said the ideal scenario would be to have as small of a fleet of rockets as possible.
Beck did say reusability could be economically beneficial if the rockets come back in really good condition, requiring minimal refurbishment and updates. Rocket Lab’s flights, which are focused on sending small satellites into orbit around Earth, start at about $7.5 million per mission. “In the ultimate world where we can just bring it back to the launch pad, fuel up, and recharge the batteries and go, then it will once again have a pretty fundamental shift on the cost of dedicated small launch,” Beck said.