Electron descending
The Electron booster, descending under a parachute (right), as seen from the helicopter as it attempted to grapple the parachute. The helicopter released the booster moments later, though. Credit: Rocket Lab

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Rocket Lab is reconsidering the use of mid-air recovery of Electron boosters as part of its efforts to reuse the vehicle.

In comments during a Feb. 28 earnings call, Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said the company was weighing recovering stages from the ocean and refurbishing them for launch rather than catching a stage with a helicopter, something that the company attempted twice, unsuccessfully, last year.

In the second attempt last November, Rocket Lab called off the helicopter catch because of a momentary loss of telemetry from the booster. The company instead allow the stage to splash down in the ocean, where a boat recovered it and returned it to Rocket Lab’s facilities.

“This turned out to be quite a happy turn of events,” he said on the call. “Electron survived an ocean recovery in remarkably good condition, and in a lot of cases its components actually pass requalification for flight.”

He said the company is planning an ocean recovery on an upcoming flight after incorporating additional waterproofing into the vehicle “Pending this outcome of testing and analysis of the stage, the mission may move us towards sticking with marine recovery altogether and introduce significant savings to the whole operation.”

“In 2022 we proved that it was possible to rendezvous with a returning stage mid-air and get it on the helicopter hook,” Beck said, referring to the first recovery attempt where the stag was snagged by the helicopter but released moments later, “but if we can save ourselves the extra step by just plucking out in water we will.”

He said later that the cost was “neutral” between mid-air and ocean recovery: the additional work to waterproof the booster and refurbish it was offset by not needing to operate a helicopter. However, Beck estimated that it can perform helicopter recovery on about 50% of Electron launches, but that increases to 60-70% for water recovery.

“What the water landing does enable us to do is recover more vehicles because we don’t have the constraints of the operations of the helicopter,” he said. “So, financially it’s kind of the same, but we get to actually reuse more vehicles.”

Capella contract and upcoming launches

Rocket Lab separately announced Feb. 28 a contract with Capella Space for four Electron launches of that company’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites. Each launch will carry a single satellite of Capella’s new Acadia series of satellites. Those launches will begin in the second half of 2023 from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, although Rocket Lab said it has the option to move launches to Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia.

“The latest multi-launch deal with Capella Space further to meet our leadership position as the trusted small launch provider of choice for constellation operators,” Beck said in the earnings call. “We’ve now launched and signed deals with some of the most prominent constellations and operators globally, demonstrating the value that Electron provides to these customers by offering reliable and flexible launch to tailored orbits.”

The new contract is in addition to an Electron launch for Capella scheduled for March from Launch Complex 2, carrying two Whitney-series satellites. That launch will take place within days of another Electron launch from Launch Complex 1 with two BlackSky Gen2 imaging satellites. Rocket Lab did not disclose specific dates for the two launches, but there are airspace restrictions in place for a launch from Wallops between March 11 and 17.

Those launches will come after Rocket Lab’s first launch of the year, its inaugural mission from Launch Complex 2 in January. The three launches will account for $19 million in projected revenue in the first quarter, part of overall projections of $51-54 million in revenue for Rocket Lab in the quarter.

Those launches will set the company up for as many as 15 launches in 2023. “With the targeted three launches in the first quarter, I think we’re in great shape to get to that 15 number,” Adam Spice, Rocket Lab’s chief financial officer, said. Demand is higher, but he cautioned that the “school of hard knocks” taught the company of the risks of customer slips.

“We’ve risk adjusted the numbers, so we think 15 is the right number for the year given where we’re at and given the likelihood that some programs could push to the right,” he said.

That demand, Beck added, meant that the company was not seeing pricing pressure on Electron launches. “Electron pricing has never gone down. It’s only ever gone up.”

That will continue, Spice predicted, as other small launch vehicle developers drop out of the market. “I think it’s just a matter of time before kind of the natural selection process really leads us down to a point where launch for Electron becomes more expensive, not less expensive,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...