Probably the two biggest things Rocket Lab is currently working on perfecting this year and in the coming years are tasks its CEO said would never happen. One of those is recovering the Electron’s first stage booster, something that might have a detour from its original idea.
Back in 2019, Rocket Lab announced plans to recover and reuse the first stage of its Electron rocket. One of the problems Rocket Lab CEO, Peter Beck, said was that Electron wasn’t designed for reusability in the first place. The booster had no landing legs, fuel margin for entry or landing burns, or heat shielding. However, the company devised a plan to delicately fly the booster back through the atmosphere, deploy a parachute, and catch it using a helicopter.
With a block upgrade to the Electron booster, recovery was made possible and attempted last year with near success. Still, the booster ended up dropping into the ocean after the pilot released it due to safety concerns. The second recovery attempt ended up happening via the ocean too, due to a temporary loss in telemetry from the booster. Both times Rocket Lab has been able to recover the booster from the ocean in a more than satisfactory state.
This has led the company to contemplate if dealing with air recovery is worth the investment and stick to water recovery like the previous attempts. Beck said in an earnings call this week that “Electron survived an ocean recovery in remarkably good condition, and in a lot of cases its components actually pass requalification for flight.”
The company also mentioned on the call that its next recovery attempt will be a water recovery now that more waterproofing has been added to the rocket. This might become the norm for Rocket Lab as it seems to be working out just fine and it means more Electron launches will have the ability to be recoverable.
So, in the end, it’s a win for Rocket Lab, with more reusable rockets and no need to operate by the constraints of a helicopter during launch. So while it’s sad to think we might never get to see an Electron handing from the underside of a helicopter, it is a win for the space industry, opening up more Rocket Lab launch opportunities.
Soon Neutron will make Rocket Lab reuse consistent
The other project Rocket Lab is working on that wasn’t originally part of its business model is Neutron, a medium-class rocket. Designed from the ground up for reusability, Neutron’s first stage will land propulsively on a barge, much like SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
Development is still underway on Neutron, so it will be some time before we get to see this happen, but exciting times are on the horizon for the Virginia coast, where it plans to launch from.