A few hours ago, Rocket Lab’s first attempt to use a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter to catch the first stage of its Electron rocket while it was returning to the ground during a mission called “There And Back Again” was successful. The goal is a controlled transport of the first stage to the ground in order to reuse it. After catching it, the pilot found that the load had different characteristics from those experienced during the tests and let go of the first stage, which splashed down and was recovered by Rocket Lab’s ship.
The success of the operation wasn’t complete and the company will conduct a thorough review of the recovered first stage to assess its condition. The data collected will be precious for the next missions up to the reuse of the boosters.
So far, only SpaceX managed to reuse its rocket’s first stage after launching cargoes into orbit. Blue Origin reuses the first stage of its New Shepard rocket but it’s a launcher for suborbital missions. In terms of engine configuration, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket looks like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 but is much smaller, so the empty booster can be transported by helicopter. For this reason, the company decided to use a recovery technique based on catching the parachute that is deployed to slow down the first stage’s descent.
Rocket Lab announced its plans to recover the Electron rocket’s first stage in 2019. Success means that it can significantly reduce the costs of a launch, as the first stage of a rocket is by far the most expensive part. Having various boosters available that can be quickly set up for a new launch also means being able to increase the number of launches. In recent years, there has been great growth in the production of small satellites, so a small-lift launcher such as the Electron could become very important in this increasingly important market.
It took over two years of work on the Electron rocket and testing the various phases of the recovery to be able to proceed with a real attempt. The operation was delayed by two failures in attempted launches in 2020 and 2021. On some missions, the first stage made a splashdown and was recovered by a Rocket Lab ship.
The attempt made when in New Zealand it was morning during the “There And Back Again” mission, which started from the Rocket Lab base in New Zealand, wasn’t completely successful but it was the first attempt. SpaceX was successful only after a number of attempts. In Rocket Lab’s case, the first stage was successfully caught but the load characteristics turned out to be different from those experienced during the tests. For safety reasons, the first stage was let go and splashed down, so once again it was recovered by Rocket Lab’s ship. The company stated it’s in great condition and will be checked up but seawater can cause damage very quickly.
According to Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO Peter Beck, the problem encountered while attempting to transport the first stage by helicopter should be easy to fix. However, a new recovery attempt isn’t scheduled for the next missions. Such complex operations take time. Rocket Lab is also working on a much bigger rocket, the Neutron, which will have a first stage capable of autonomous landing and could debut in 2024.