A glance at the company’s production floor shows a series of Electron boosters, with the typical black carbon fiber rockets in the foreground and a reusable metallic-looking booster in the center.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck was once convinced his company would never reuse its rockets like Elon Musk’s SpaceX – to the point that Beck promised to eat his hat.
A few mixed hat yarns swallowed later, Beck drastically changed his tone. Rocket Lab is nearing completion with a development program that uses helicopters to catch electron boosters after launches, and the company is designing its Neutron rocket to be reusable when it debuts in 2024.
“I think anyone who doesn’t develop a reusable launcher at this point is developing a dead end product because it’s so obvious that this is a fundamental approach that needs to be integrated from day one,” Beck said. to journalists at a press conference. press conference Tuesday.
Beck’s statement aligns with sentiment with Musk, who told CNBC in response to a recovery video from Rocket Lab that “complete and rapid reuse is the holy grail of orbital rockets”.
Traditionally, the rockets that launch satellites and spacecraft are disposable – meaning the thruster, which is the largest and most expensive part of the rocket that takes it off, is thrown away after a launch. SpaceX has pioneered the reuse of orbital-class rocket boosters, with Musk’s company regularly disembarking its Falcon boosters after launches and reusing them up to 10 times each.
A composite image showing a Falcon 9 rocket thruster taking off and a few minutes later landing near the launch pad.
Helicopter rocket launch next year
Rocket Lab launched an Electron mission carrying satellites to BlackSky last week and, for the third time, managed to recover the booster from the water after returning it to the atmosphere.
“The next recovery flight we do will be the one we go and catch it,” Beck said on Tuesday.
The timing of that next recovery attempt depends on “the readiness of the helicopter,” Beck said, because Rocket Lab has “a much bigger helicopter in the works” and it “needs some modification.” to be ready to catch Electron.
“We definitely hope to have this flight in the first half of next year, or as soon as possible in practice,” Beck said.
A close look at the company’s reusable Electron rocket booster.
Rocket Lab uses a new thermal protection system on its Electron booster to strengthen it for recoveries, a type of graphite that makes the carbon fiber rocket “almost metallic,” Beck said.
Once Rocket Lab completes the recovery test program, Beck expects “approximately 50% of Electron flights will be reusable versus consumables.” The main goal of Rocket Lab to reuse rockets remains to improve production.
Reflecting on 2021, in which his company has had five launches so far, Beck said the year has been “horrible” and “really, really tough.” He cited New Zealand’s Covid lockdown proceedings as the main problem for the company, saying they have slowed production and the company’s schedule.
But Rocket Lab is preparing to bounce back next year.
“We’ve got a bunch of pitchers sitting on the floor, and we’re going to have a very, very busy 2022,” Beck said.