Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck was once confident that his company would never reuse its rockets like Elon Musk’s SpaceX — to the point that Beck promised to eat his hat.
A few swallowed threads of blended hat later, Beck has dramatically changed his tune. Rocket Lab is nearly finished with a development program that uses helicopters to catch Electron boosters after launches, and the company is designing its Neutron rocket to be reusable when it debuts in 2024.
“I think anybody who’s not developing a reusable launch vehicle at this point in time is developing a dead-end product because it’s just so obvious that this is a fundamental approach that has to be baked in from day one,” Beck told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday.
Beck’s declaration aligns in sentiment with Musk, who told CNBC in response to a Rocket Lab recovery video that “full & rapid reusability is the holy grail of orbital rocketry.”
Traditionally, the rockets that launch satellites and spacecraft are expendable – meaning the booster, which is the largest and most expensive part of the rocket that gets it off the ground, is discarded after a launch. SpaceX pioneered reusing orbital-class rocket boosters, with Musk’s company regularly landing its Falcon boosters after launches and reusing them up to 10 times each.
Rocket Lab’s approach to recovering its Electron boosters is different from SpaceX, which uses the engines to slow down during reentry and deploys wide legs to land on large pads. Rocket Lab guides the Electron booster back through the atmosphere and then deploys a parachute. The company plans to use a helicopter to snag the parachute above the ocean and carry the booster back to land.
Reusing orbital rockets is becoming increasingly practicable for companies in a variety of ways. SpaceX plans to take landing its rockets a step further with Starship, Rocket Lab is adding parachutes and helicopters for Electron, Virgin Orbit touts a 747 jet approach as the reusable foundation of its launches, and Relativity Space unveiled plans to reuse its coming Terran R rockets.
Some U.S. companies remain focused on expendable rockets, such as Astra, ABL Space, Firefly Space and United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Helicopter rocket catch next year
Rocket Lab launched an Electron mission carrying satellites for BlackSky last week and, for the third time, successfully recovered the booster from the water after returning it through the atmosphere.
“The next recovery flight that we will make will be one where we will go and actually catch it,” Beck said on Tuesday.
Timing of that next recovery attempt depends on “helicopter readiness,” Beck said, as Rocket Lab has “a significantly larger helicopter in work” and it “needs some modifications” completed to be ready to catch Electron.
“We certainly hope to have that flight within the first half of next year, or as soon as practically possible,” Beck said.
Rocket Lab is using a new thermal protection system on its Electron booster to strengthen it for recoveries, a type of graphite that makes the carbon fiber rocket “almost look metallic,” Beck said.
Once Rocket Lab completes the recovery test program, Beck expects that “around 50% of Electron flights will be reusable versus expendable.” Rocket Lab’s main goal of reusing rockets remains improving production output.
Reflecting on 2021, in which his company has completed five launches so far, Beck said the year has been “horrible” and “really, really tough.” He cited the New Zealand Covid lockdown procedures as the main pain point for the company, saying it has slowed the company’s production and schedule.
But Rocket Lab is preparing to bounce back next year.
“We have a bunch of launch vehicles sitting on the floor, and we’re going to have to have a very, very busy 2022,” Beck said.