What was supposed to have been a milestone in Rocket Lab's march toward reusability turned into a mishap over the weekend as a borked second stage sent the payload on the company's 20th Electron launch back to Earth considerably earlier than planned.
Delicately described as an "anomaly" by Rocket Lab, problems seemed to begin seconds after the second stage was ignited. Those watching the livestream of the event were treated to the sight of the stage shutting down prematurely after what appeared to be a tumble. Telemetry then showed the rocket slowing down before Rocket Lab pulled the plug.
The flight of the first stage looked to be nominal, having left the pad at launch complex 1A on New Zealand's Māhia Peninsula on 15 May at 11:11 UTC following a hold due to upper-level winds. There was a furore over the loss of the payload - two of BlackSky's satellites were destroyed, but somewhat lost in that was the fact the first stage made a successful descent to the ocean, under parachute and, according to Rocket Lab, the "recovery team is working to retrieve the stage from the ocean as planned."
Rocket Lab said it "is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to investigate the anomaly and identify the root cause to correct the issue for future missions."
It is the second loss of mission Rocket Lab has suffered within 12 months. Out of 20 Electron launches, 17 have been successful. The very first launch, a test, was aborted after telemetry was lost. The "Pics Or It Didn't Happen" mission was lost due to iffy electrics in the second stage in July last year, and this weekend's "Running Out Of Toes" failure gives the company a depressing record of three fails out of 20 attempts.
Then again, SpaceX's first three attempts at launching the Falcon 1 failed, although Elon Musk's biz has very much got into the swing of things with its Falcon 9. Arianespace's Vega has also had a patchy record, with two out of 18 launches ending in failure during its nine-year operational lifetime.
Rocket Lab boss Peter Beck told The Register ahead of the latest launch that a further iteration was planned before the company had a go at catching an Electron via helicopter. That iteration will now need to feature the fix for whatever doomed "Running Out Of Toes".
Describing the launch day as "one of our toughest," Beck said in a statement: "We will learn from this, and we'll be back on the pad again."
As the saying goes, Space Is Hard. ®