Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it an Electron rocket descending to the ocean?

Everything but catching the thing: Rocket Lab prepares for recovery


Interview New Zealand's Rocket Lab is set to launch another Electron rocket - a precursor to the rocketeer's first attempt at catching a descending booster. The Register caught up with CEO Peter Beck to discuss helicopters, Mars and visiting Venus.

The launch, dubbed "Love at First Insight", is currently scheduled for no earlier than 16 November (owing to an "out of family ground sensor reading" when the launch window opened yesterday morning) and has the primary objective of popping a pair of Earth-observation satellites into orbit for Black Sky. Also featuring on the launch is Rocket Lab's latest evolution of its recovery technology.

Unlike SpaceX's crowd-pleasing propulsive antics, the first stage of the Rocket Lab Electron will descend by parachute and attempt a controlled splashdown into the ocean, making it the third ocean recovery (if all goes well.) The eventual plan is for a helicopter to snag the stage as it descends. This time, however, everything will be done except an attempt to catch the rocket.

The launch is the second since a payload, also a pair of Black Sky satellites, was lost on the "Running Out Of Toes" mission when the second stage engine was shut down prematurely. The incident somewhat overshadowed the ocean splashdown and recovery of the booster and has left the company with an unenviable track record; two payload losses in 21 launches is a stark reminder of the difficulty of the operation.

"What we're doing with this one," Beck tells us, "is everything we've done before, except we're bringing in the helicopter from two hundred nautical miles from the shore, and we're going to match it [the descending booster] and basically follow it down and simulate a catch."

It'll be an impressive manoeuvre. The Electron will have had to endure huge amounts of pressure as the nine Rutherford engines in its base face temperatures of up to 2,200°C as the stage returns. And that's before the parachutes pop out and the booster falls to an altitude where it could be captured by helicopter.

"The hardest part is not actually hooking it," remarks Beck with the confidence of someone who is not going to be flying the helicopter. "It is not that hard," he adds. "The hard part is from launch through to [descending] under the parachute; managing all that trajectory, getting it where it should be and getting the helicopter at the right time where it should be at the right altitude."

If things go to plan, the helicopter will attempt to snag the descending booster on the next recovery mission before all that expensive hardware encounters the water. Not that the Electron is particularly expensive when compared to the considerably larger alternatives but, as Beck says, "If you can get that first stage back, then you're recovering basically 80 per cent of the cost of the vehicle." Probably a bit more, once one considers the bill of materials and labour involved in building the launcher.

The launch will be from Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. It has another pad in the US, at Wallops Island, but is awaiting approval from NASA for its autonomous flight termination system before Electrons can start launching.

However, a second pad has been constructed in New Zealand that Beck described as "a really big enabler" due to the increase in launch cadence it could afford the company. The pad has yet to be formally opened, but Beck says: "It looks just like a pad... so there's not a tremendous amount of stuff [left] to do there."

The second New Zealand pad should start seeing action next year, and the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) precursor mission for the Lunar Gateway should also get off the ground in 2022.

Also on the schedule are the twin Mars ESCAPADE spacecraft and Beck's personally funded mission to Venus. And then there is the considerably heftier Neutron launcher.

"A lot of stuff is way easier," says Beck of the development of the Neutron and its infrastructure compared to the "dinky" (his words) world of the Electron. "When you have a bit of scale, it's so much easier."

Not so easy is life as a public company. While Rocket Lab has an impressive order book with customers including NASA and the US Space Force and, according to Beck, was "gearing up to being a public company for a couple of years," things have changed.

"It is different," he admits. "I guess what the thing that's less comfortable for me is that we only ever used to talk about stuff once we had done it or it was very, very far on. Now we have to talk about stuff that, you know, we haven't done yet, and is in the future."

And the space industry does so love its PowerPoint rockets. Even if Beck much prefers the real thing. ®

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