Rocket Lab postpones launch because of coronavirus pandemic

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WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab announced March 24 that it was delaying the next launch of its Electron rocket from New Zealand as the government there institutes a near-total lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The company said in a statement that the launch, which had been scheduled for March 30 from its Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, would be postponed, and did not set a new date. “We are working with the government, health officials and our customers to determine when launch operations can resume,” the company said.

The decision to postpone the launch came after the government of New Zealand announced March 23 that it was moving to Level 4, or its highest response level to the pandemic, effective just before midnight local time March 25. Under Level 4, residents are instructed to remain at home and only essential businesses allowed to remain open.

What the government considers essential is very limited. “Only the businesses absolutely essential to ensure the necessities of life, like supermarkets and pharmacies, can stay open. If in doubt, the business premises should be closed,” Paul Stocks, deputy chief executive of New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said in a March 24 statement.

The order does allow businesses deemed a “critical part of the supply chain for essential services” to remain open, but does not include the broader “critical infrastructure” exemptions found in similar orders in the United States that have allowed aerospace companies to remain open.

Days earlier, Rocket Lab said it was moving ahead with the launch. Company spokesperson Morgan Bailey said March 19 that the launch was still scheduled for March 30, with all the payloads and the launch team in place in New Zealand. The company confirmed those launch plans in a March 21 statement, adding that it was “working with our customers and local government authorities to minimize any potential disruption to our future missions planned in the months ahead.”

The government order would also halt production of Electron rockets at the company’s New Zealand factory. Rocket Lab said in its statement that it has vehicles completed that can be ready once launches resume. “We’re fortunate to have enough launch vehicles ready that we can effectively manage a pause in production and still have vehicles available for launch as soon as conditions allow,” it stated.

The delayed mission, ironically named “Don’t Stop Me Now” by the company, carried three payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office as well as student-built cubesats from Boston University and the University of New South Wales.

The Electron mission joins a small but growing list of launch attempts postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier March 24, the Argentine space agency CONAE announced the launch of its SAOCOM 1B satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9, scheduled for March 30 from Cape Canaveral, has been delayed. CONAE said that “restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic” raised questions about whether the agency had the resources to support the launch of the satellite as well as its on-orbit commissioning.

Launches from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, have also been placed on hold since March 16 because of French restrictions on non-essential activities. That has delayed the return to flight of the Vega rocket, which had been scheduled for March 23.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 launch remains scheduled for March 26 from Cape Canaveral. The U.S. Space Force’s 45th Space Wing said March 24 that it did not foresee other launches there being delayed because of restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic on spaceport activities.