Electron mid-air catch
A helicopter uses a specially designed hook to snag the parachute attached to a replica of an Electron first stage, demonstrating a key step in Rocket Lab's plans to recover and reuse the stage. Credit: Rocket Lab

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab announced April 8 it had successfully tested its ability to catch a falling Electron rocket stage in midair, a key step in the company’s efforts to recover and reuse the stage.

In a test performed in early March in New Zealand, one helicopter carried a replica Electron first stage aloft and released it. The stage deployed a parachute and, at an altitude of about 1,500 meters, a second helicopter equipped with a grappling hook snagged the parachute. The helicopter then carried the stage back to land.

The midair capture test worked on the first try, Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview. “I wouldn’t say it was a walk in the park,” he said. “The helicopter pilot had to work for it, but he made it look pretty easy. Everything worked as it should have.”

Midair recovery is a key part of Rocket Lab’s plans to reuse the Electron first stage, which the company announced in August 2019. After stage separation, the stage would reenter and decelerate sharply through what the company calls “the wall,” then deploy a parachute. A helicopter would then grab the parachute and capture the stage, setting it down on a boat for refurbishment and reuse.

Rocket Lab has tested part of the recovery effort, successfully flying two Electron stages through re-entry after launches in December and January. That included one launch where the stage survived reentry and remained intact until it hit the ocean, having decelerated from more than 7,000 to less than 900 kilometers per hour.

Surviving reentry was the first of three “tricky bits,” as Beck described it, to the Electron recovery process. The second was the midair recovery test. While the initial recovery test was a success, Beck didn’t rule out doing more in the future. “It didn’t feel like it was a one-off lucky shot,” he said of the successful test. “Before we go out and try to pluck a real one out of the sky, we’ll probably do some more tests to gain some more experience.”

The last major step is to slow the rocket stage after reentry enough to allow for a controlled descent. Beck said that on Electron’s 17th flight — its next flight will be its 12th — the rocket will be upgraded with a full recovery system, including a parachute. On that flight, the parachute will deploy at an altitude of about 6,000 meters, allowing the stage to slowly descend to the ocean.

Rocket Lab won’t attempt a midair recovery of the stage on that flight, he said, instead allowing the stage to splash down and then be recovered. “That will be where we really learn what the condition of the stage is really, and how much work we have in front of us,” he said.

Pandemic impacts

The midair recovery test took place weeks before New Zealand went to Level 4 of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, shutting down all but the most essential activities and instructing people to stay at home. That led Rocket Lab to delay its next Electron launch, which had been scheduled for March 30.

That country-wide lockdown has helped stop the growth of COVID-19 in New Zealand, although it is likely to remain in place until at least late April. “Hopefully in the next couple of weeks the government lifts some of the restrictions so we can get back out to the pad,” Beck said.

When those restrictions are lifted, he said the company should be able to resume launches soon. The rocket was already on the pad for a wet dress rehearsal when the Level 4 restriction was announced, he said. “We were very close to launch, so we’ll be able to get back out quickly,” he said.

Rocket Lab was also preparing for its first launch from the United States, at Launch Complex 2 on Wallops Island, Virginia, when the pandemic hit. The rocket for that launch, which will carry a U.S. Air Force experimental smallsat called Monolith, is in a hangar near the launch site.

While that launch was previously planned for this spring, Beck declined to give a firm schedule for the mission. “It’s really out of our control in a lot of respects,” he said. One factor, he said, is that NASA needs to certify the company’s automated flight termination system since the agency operates the overall launch range, but it’s uncertain when the agency will be able to do that with most of the agency teleworking.

“The government customers are determining which launches are critical and which launches aren’t,” he added. The U.S. Space Force announced April 7 it was delaying a GPS satellite launch from Cape Canaveral by two months to avoid any health risks to launch personnel.

Beck said Rocket Lab is using this time to work on other projects, such as planning for the launch of a NASA lunar cubesat mission called CAPSTONE. The company won the contract for that mission Feb. 14, using an Electron rocket and the company’s Photon satellite bus.

The company’s engineers have adapted well to teleworking. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been working from home,” he said. Technicians who normally work in the factory are using the time to update documents and procedures. “There were a lot of jobs just hanging out there that we never got around to doing that this pause has given us an opportunity to move forward on.”

Beck added that he felt confident about the company’s long-term future despite the economic impact and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. “We’ll come out of this pause in a much, much stronger place than we were,” he said.

That confidence is buoyed by a $140 million round that the company raised in late 2018 as “dry powder” to support the company. “As a business owner, you’re always thinking of the things that can kill you,” he said. “But for all the reasons to have a big keg of dry powder, global pandemic was not on my list.”

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...