Technical issue delays next Rocket Lab Electron launch

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COLORADO SPRINGS — Rocket Lab is postponing its next launch by a few weeks because of a technical problem, but the company says it is optimistic about its long-term prospects as demand for its small launch vehicle grows.

The company, headquartered in the United States but with launch operations in New Zealand, announced April 17 that it was postponing a launch of its Electron rocket scheduled for April 19 because of a problem detected in a wet dress rehearsal a few days earlier.

In an interview during the 34th Space Symposium here, Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said that engineers detected “unusual behavior” in a motor controller for one of the nine engines in its first stage. “We want to take some time to review that data,” he said on the decision to delay the launch.

The next launch window for the mission is in about three weeks, he said. While Rocket Lab owns its own launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, he said the company has to work with third parties that provide range safety services when scheduling launches. That should also be enough time, he added to assess the problem and make any hardware changes to the vehicle.

Beck said there had been no other technical issues with the vehicle either during its assembly or the dress rehearsal. “It was super smooth,” he said. “The team is starting to get into a groove.”

The launch, dubbed “It’s Business Time,” will be the first commercial launch of the Electron after two test flights. The rocket is carrying two Lemur-2 cubesats for Spire, a company that operates a constellation of such satellites for collecting weather and ship-tracking data. It will also carry a satellite built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems for GeoOptics, a company that also is developing a constellation to collect weather data through GPS radio occultations.

Rocket Lab is also gearing up for the next launch after that, which will carry a set of cubesats provided by NASA under a Venture Class Launch Services contract awarded in 2015. The cubesats were integrated last week at Rocket Lab’s facility in California.

Beck said the company has worked well with NASA on that upcoming mission. “That Venture Class contracting vehicle that they put forward is just incredible,” he said. “The oversight they’ve provided has been tremendously valuable for us.”

Rocket Lab plans to increase its launch rate this year to one launch a month, and then to one launch every two weeks in 2019. Beck said the company has seen strong interest from a variety of commercial and government customers, and expects to announce new launch contracts in the next few weeks.

That increased launch rate is helping the company’s bottom line. Beck said he estimated that Rocket Lab will be cash-flow neutral by the middle of this year. “The business is looking in very good shape.”

Rocket Lab has grown significantly, with about 250 employees worldwide. The majority are in New Zealand, but Beck said its U.S. operations are ramping up. That includes the hire earlier this month of Adam Spice as chief financial officer.

Beck sought to differentiate Rocket Lab’s Electron with the growing number of small launch vehicles in various stages of development. “There’s a lot of talk in this industry, a lot of promises, but we’re the only one delivering payloads to orbit,” he said. “There are a lot of companies out there and we wish them absolutely all the best, but it’s a long way from a test fire to orbit.”