Rocket Lab wins NRO contracts for back-to-back launches

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WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab has won contracts from the National Reconnaissance Office for a pair of Electron launches intended to demonstrate the company’s responsive launch capabilities.

Rocket Lab announced June 18 that it received the NRO contracts for a pair of Electron missions from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand in the late spring of 2021. The launches will take place from the existing launch pad there, known as LC-1A, as well as a second pad, LC-1B, scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

In a demonstration of its responsive launch capabilities, Rocket Lab said in a statement announcing the contract that the two launches will take place “within weeks” of each other. However, in an interview, Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said he hopes the time between the two launches is much less than that.

“We’re looking forward to having two vehicles sitting on two pads simultaneously, and we’ll see how close together we can actually get them to launch,” he said. “We’re planning internally to see how close we can get those two together.”

Conducting the back-to-back launches is intended to demonstrate the ability to swiftly launch national security payloads. “It’s going to be a significant milestone for us and the NRO to demonstrate true responsive space in action,” he said. “When it comes to national security, there shouldn’t be any waiting room to get into orbit.”

The NRO used its Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract vehicle for the two launches, which it also used to launch three payloads June 13 on the most recent Electron rocket. NRO also launched a payload on the previous Electron launch in January.

While NRO has been a major customer of late for Rocket Lab, Beck said the company has good relationships with commercial customers and other U.S. government agencies, including DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force. “We love working the NRO. They’re a great bunch of guys. They’re performing just an incredibly important need for national security,” he said.

With COVID-19 all but eradicated in New Zealand, Rocket Lab is ramping up its launch activities in general as it returns to normal operations. Its next Electron launch is scheduled for July 3, which will carry seven commercial satellites. The primary payload is an imaging satellite developed by Canon, with Planet flying five of its SuperDove imaging cubesats as well. The seventh satellite is Faraday-1, a cubesat developed by British company In-Space Missions designed to carry a variety of hosted payloads.

If that launch date holds, the turnaround between launches of less than three weeks will be a record for Rocket Lab. “The next launch after that will be an even shorter turn,” he said. “We’ll be at a very quick pace from here on through the rest of the year.”

That manifest includes the first Electron launch from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia, carrying a U.S. Air Force payload. The Electron for that mission is already at the launch site, having gone through a series of tests of the new pad this spring. Beck didn’t give a date for that launch but said it would come after the next two planned for New Zealand.

Beck said he believes the company is now well-positioned to take advantage of growing smallsat launch demand as many competitors have been sidelined by the pandemic. “Small launch around the world is largely crippled because of COVID-19,” he said. “We see us playing a really critical role in this period getting customers’ payloads to orbit while everyone else is dealing with the pandemic.”

Rocket Lab is still planning to attempt to recover an Electron first stage on the rocket’s 17th launch, which Beck said will likely be in October or November. (The next launch will be the 13th flight of the rocket.) That is part of an effort the company announced last year to recover and reuse those first stages to allow it to increase its launch rate without major upgrades to its manufacturing capacity.

“I told the team that we’re going to have a stage back in the factory by the end of the year, and, all going well, we will,” he said. “Then the fun will really start.”