Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck was once confident his company would never reuse his rockets like Elon Musk’s SpaceX – to the point that Beck promised to eat his hat.
A few choked threads from a mixed hat later, Beck has changed his melody dramatically. Rocket Lab is almost complete with a development program that uses helicopters to trap electron boosters after launch, and the company is developing its neutron rocket to be reusable when it debuts in 2024.
“I think anyone who isn’t currently developing a reusable launcher is developing a dead end product because it’s just so obvious that this is a fundamental approach that needs to be branded in from day one,” Beck told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday.
Beck’s explanation agrees with the mood. match Musk, who told CNBC in response to a Rocket Lab recovery video that “full and fast reusability is the holy grail of orbital rocket research”.
Traditionally, the rockets that launch satellites and spacecraft are dispensable – that is, the booster, the largest and most expensive part of the rocket that brings them to the ground, is thrown away after a launch. SpaceX pioneered the reuse of orbital-class rocket boosters, with Musk’s company regularly landing its Falcon boosters after launch, reusing them up to 10 times at a time.
Rocket Lab’s approach to restoring its electron boosters is different from SpaceX, which uses the thrusters to slow down on re-entry and uses wide legs to land on large pads. Rocket Lab returns the electron booster through the atmosphere and then deploys a parachute. The company plans to catch the parachute over the ocean in a helicopter and bring the booster ashore.
Reusing orbital missiles is becoming increasingly practical for businesses in a variety of ways. SpaceX plans to take its rocket landings a step further with Starship, Rocket Lab adds parachutes and helicopters for Electron, Virgin Orbit is promoting a 747 jet approach as a reusable base for its launches, and Relativity Space revealed plans to reuse its upcoming terrain -R missiles.
Some US companies continue to focus on consumable missiles, such as Astra, ABL Space, Firefly Space, and United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Helicopter missile capture next year
Rocket Lab launched an electron satellite mission for BlackSky last week and was able to successfully recover the booster from the water for the third time after it was brought back through the atmosphere.
“The next rescue flight we will do will be one where we go and actually reach it,” Beck said on Tuesday.
The timing of the next rescue attempt depends on the “readiness of the helicopter,” Beck said, as Rocket Lab “has a significantly larger helicopter in the works” and “some modifications” need to be completed in order to be ready to capture Electron.
“We definitely hope that this flight will be in the first half of next year or as soon as practical,” said Beck.
Rocket Lab is using a new thermal protection system on its Electron booster to strengthen it for recovery, a type of graphite that makes the carbon fiber rocket “look almost metallic,” Beck said.
Once Rocket Lab completes the recovery testing program, Beck expects that “approximately 50% of Electron flights will be reusable and dispensable”. Rocket Lab’s main goal of reusing missiles remains to improve production efficiency.
Looking ahead to 2021, when his company has completed five launches to date, Beck said the year has been “terrible” and “really, really tough.” He named the Covid lockdown procedures in New Zealand as the main pain point for the company and said it slowed the company’s production and schedule.
But Rocket Lab is preparing to bounce back next year.
“We have a number of launch vehicles on the ground and we’re going to have to have a very, very busy 2022,” Beck said.