Using a helicopter to catch a falling rocket is such a complex task that Peter Beck likens it to a “supersonic ballet.”
Rocket Lab, the company that Beck founded, partially pulled off the feat Tuesday as it pushes to make its small Electron rockets reusable. But after briefly catching the spent rocket, a helicopter crew was quickly forced to let it go again for safety reasons, and it fell into the Pacific Ocean where it was collected by a waiting boat.
The California-based company regularly launches 18-meter (59-foot) rockets from the remote Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand to deliver satellites into space.
On Tuesday, the Electron rocket was launched in the morning and sent 34 satellites into orbit before the main booster section began falling to Earth. Its descent was slowed to about 10 meters (33 feet) per second by a parachute.
That’s when the helicopter crew sprang into action, dangling a long line with a hook below the helicopter to snag the booster’s parachute lines. The crew caught the rocket but the load on the helicopter exceeded the parameters from tests and simulations, so they jettisoned it again.
This mission, labeled "There and Back Again," took off at 6:50 pm ET.
Company communications advisor, Murielle Baker, after initially declaring success, came onto the companies webcast to acknowledge the pilot of the helicopter dropped the rocket "at his discretion" after experiencing a "different load characteristic" than he had during test runs of the catch.
Still, Baker called the initial catch "a monumental step forward."
"We witnessed a spectacular catch," she said.
The webcast showed the helicopter snag the rocket's parachute about 15 minutes after launch, and a cheer arose from mission control, but moments later a disappointed sigh could be heard and the feed cut out.
This was the first time that Rocket Lab attempts to catch one of its Electron rockets with a helicopter, part of the company’s plan to recover and reuse its vehicles after launch.
Up until now, Electron — designed to launch batches of small satellites into low Earth orbit — has mostly been an expendable rocket. Most of these rockets fall back to Earth after each flight and are ultimately destroyed.
But by catching and reusing its rockets after flight, Rocket Lab hopes to cut down on the manufacturing cost associated with building an entirely new rocket for each of its missions. The goal is similar to that of SpaceX, which has become famous for landing and reusing its rockets post-flight.
The Electron rocket, Rocket Lab's small rocket which had launched nearly two dozen successful missions prior to Monday's launch, did successfully complete its primary objective: It deployed 34 satellite payloads for a number of commercial operators, bringing the total number of Electron-launched satellites in space to 146.
After separating from the first-stage booster, the Electron's second-stage continued to orbit to fulfill the satellite deployment while the booster fell back to Earth at nearly 5,150 miles per hour. Once near enough to the Earth's surface, the booster deployed parachutes to slow its descent. A helicopter waited to snag the booster's parachute with a hook.
Rocket Lab is a public American aerospace manufacturer and small satellite launch service provider with a wholly owned New Zealand subsidiary. It developed a sub-orbital sounding rocket named Ātea and currently operates a lightweight orbital rocket known as Electron, which provides dedicated launches for small satellites and CubeSats. It is developing a new medium-lift launch vehicle named Neutron.
The company was founded in New Zealand in 2006 by Peter Beck and established headquarters in California in the United States in 2013. On August 25, 2021 Rocket Lab publicly listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange through a SPAC merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation.