The Electron booster is coming to the company’s helicopter show for hunting.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck announced the company’s first attempt Monday to capture the Electron-boosted missile using a helicopter after launch as “exceptional,” telling CNBC that the test “met 99%” of the company’s goals toward reusing the missiles.
“Yesterday it was a demo that everything works – it is all possible. You can successfully control and re-enter a file [rocket] Get out of space and put it under a parachute.. Then go out and retrieve it with a helicopter in the air.”
Rocket Lab wants to make its rocket boosters reusable, like the ones in Elon Musk’s SpaceX, but with an entirely different approach. Following the launch of an Electron rocket from New Zealand on Monday, the company used a helicopter to disable a parachute that was slowing down the rocket as it returned to Earth.
SpaceX uses its rocket’s engines to slow down during re-entry and deploys wide legs to land on large platforms.
Beck said that while the Rocket Lab helicopter was “nicely attached” and began flying while carrying the booster, the helicopter pilot saw that the payload from the booster was different from previous tests and fired the booster, which fell into the Pacific Ocean. The booster was then retrieved from the water by the Rocket Lab ship. Beck said the missile was in “excellent” condition and the pilot “made the right call.”
Beck noted that Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter is capable of lifting 5,000 kilograms, with the Electron booster weighing “just under 1,000 kilograms.” While the test had a “large margin,” Beck said, the Rocket Lab used “really conservative estimates” to maximize safety while hunting. The helicopter is flown by a crew of three: pilot, co-pilot and controller.
In making its boosters reusable, Rocket Lab will be able to launch more often while simultaneously reducing the cost of materials for each mission.
Beck revealed that the Electron booster makes up between 70% and 80% of the vehicle’s total cost. Reusing it will generate significant savings for the company and reduce the number of boosters it needs to produce.
Rocket Lab will then return the Electron booster to its factory to strip it, inspect it, and begin the refurbishment process for the next flight.
While Beck cautioned that the company needed to “run a bunch of tests” on the booster, Rocket Lab would “try to launch that again” — in what would be the first launch of a reused missile.
Beck estimates that half of Rocket Lab’s missions will use reusable missiles. Night launches, when the helicopter is not flying, or launches that require the full capability of the missile, lower that number. (Rocket Lab loses about 10% of the load capacity on the electron in its reusable configuration.)
“Reusability is an iterative process. As we’ve seen with SpaceX — first it was six months or more, then look at what it is now: it takes weeks to transform,” Beck said.