Electron booster being recovered from ocean
Rocket Lab has made several tweaks to both the Electron booster and its recovery techniques now that it is planning to recover boosters after splashdown instead of mid-air capture. Credit: Rocket Lab

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab’s next Electron launch will feature upgrades to the rocket that bring the company a step closer to being able to reuse its first stage.

Rocket Lab’s “Baby Come Back” mission is scheduled for launch July 14 from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. The rocket will place into orbit Telesat’s LEO 3 spacecraft, a technology demonstrator for its future Lightspeed constellation, as well as two Spire cubesats and NASA’s four-cubesat Starling mission to test technologies for future “swarm” missions.

The Electron’s first stage will descend under a parachute and splash down to be recovered by a ship. The vehicle incorporates some minor design changes to support splashdown recovery after the company abandoned plans earlier in the year to do a mid-air recovery where a helicopter catches the stage as it descends under its parachute.

“There are some internal vehicle changes to improve its ability to keep water out of the areas where we don’t want it,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, in an interview. “We’ve taken this next opportunity to improve the watertightness of the vehicle.”

The company is also changing how it recovers the stage out of the water and onto a ship, using a two-point lifting method to move it onto the ship. That had not been a priority previously when the company was still focused on helicopter recovery, he said. “It makes it much simpler to recover and much less likely to damage the stage during recovery.”

Rocket Lab also replaced the parachute on the stage with a lighter version. “We built a parachute optimized for aerocapture. Now that we don’t have to do that, we can take the opportunity to optimize the parachute for splashdown recovery,” he said.

Those measures are all part of an effort with the ultimate goal of reusing the Electron first stage. In April, the company announced it would refly a single Rutherford engine on an Electron later this year, the first such engine reuse by the company.

Beck said the company is taking a “methodical” approach to reusability, making incremental steps that get it closer to full reuse. “I’m sure we’ll learn something from this mission and we’ll probably make some tweaks again to the next one. We’re methodically walking step-by-step and taking the opportunity to get it right.”

Rocket Lab does have a timeline to get to reusing an Electron booster, but Beck declined to disclose it. He added that while reusability was an “important economic lever” for the company, it was not an urgent requirement. The company has previously emphasized that reusability would allow it to increase launch activity without having to scale up its factory.

“From a production standpoint, the factory can keep up,” he said. “It’s not an existential requirement that we have to have it, hence why we’re being pretty methodical about it.”

Even after the company demonstrates reusability, he said many missions likely won’t feature recovery or reuse because of specific performance requirements. “The very nature of the missions that Electron gets requested to do means that we’ll never have full reusability,” 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...