Rocket Lab CEO promotes rocket capture by helicopter as a key to reusable targets

The Electron booster comes within sight of the company’s helicopter for capture.


RocketLab CEO Peter Beck announced on Monday the company’s first attempt to capture its Electron rocket using a helicopter after launch as “phenomenal”, telling CNBC that the test “met 99%” of the company’s targets for rocket reuse.

“Yesterday was a demonstration that everything works, everything is doable. You can successfully check and re-enter a [rocket] stage from space, put it under a parachute .. and then go and retrieve it with a helicopter in mid-air, ”Beck said.

Rocket Lab wants to make its rocket boosters, like those of by Elon Musk SpaceX, but with a very different approach. After launching its Electron rocket from New Zealand on Monday, the company used a helicopter to grab the parachute that was slowing the rocket’s booster on its way back to Earth.

SpaceX uses its rocket motors to slow down on re-entry and spreads legs apart to land on large platforms.

While the Rocket Lab helicopter “had a good connection” and started flying while carrying the booster, Beck said, the helicopter pilot saw that the booster load was different from previous tests and released the booster. , which fell into the Pacific Ocean. The booster was then recovered from the water from the Rocket Lab ship. Beck said the rocket is in “excellent” condition and that the pilot “made the right choice”.

Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter is capable of lifting 5,000 kilograms, Beck noted, with the Electron booster weighing “just under 1,000 kilograms.” Although the test had “a lot of headroom,” Beck said, Rocket Lab used “very conservative estimates” to maximize safety when capturing. The helicopter flies with a crew of three: a pilot, a co-pilot and an observer.

By making its boosters reusable, Rocket Lab would be able to launch more often while simultaneously reducing the cost of each mission’s material.

Beck revealed that the Electron booster constitutes between 70% and 80% of the total cost of the vehicle. Reuse would result in significant savings for the company and reduce the number of boosters it has to produce.

Rocket Lab will then return the Electron booster to its factory to take it apart, inspect it and begin the refurbishment process for the next flight.

While Beck warned that the company needs to “run a series of tests” on the booster, Rocket Lab will “try to fly it again” – in what would be its first launch of a reused rocket.

Beck estimates that about half of Rocket Lab’s missions will use reusable rockets. Night launches, when the helicopter was not flying, or launches that require the full capacity of the rocket reduce that number. (Rocket Lab loses about 10% of the payload capacity on the Electron in its reusable configuration.)

“Reusability is an iterative process. As we saw with SpaceX, for the first one, the lead time was six months or more, so look where they are now: taking weeks to clean up,” Beck said.