Reusability is a growing trend in spaceflight – from reusable capsules, space planes, and rocket boosters. Rocket Lab is going all-in on reusability with its Neutron rocket, as is SpaceX with its Starship, but before then, Rocket Lab has adapted and improved its Electron rocket for recovery and reuse.
Rocket Lab has already done some recovery of its Electron booster – parachuting them down into the ocean and then scooping them up. But that was all in preparation for a much more interesting form of recovery: catching the falling first stage with a helicopter.
Today’s rideshare mission carried 34 satellites into sun-synchronous orbit. The mission has been delayed a few times in order to launch in optimal weather conditions, but today the weather was clear for launch and recovery.
At 6:49 p.m. ET, after a brief hold at T-12 minutes, the Electron rocket ignited and took off from Rocket Lab’s LC-1A in New Zealand.
Teams have been practicing catching weight-simulated boosters for months now, but this is the first time they have caught one following an actual launch.
Using a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, the team approached the descending booster, which was moving at about 20 miles per hour under parachute. They managed to hook the booster to return it for assessment for reuse.
Update: Following the catch of the booster, the helicopter experienced unexpected loads. The pilot opted to release the booster, which experienced a soft splashdown, shortly after.