Taking a page from SpaceX’s playbook, Rocket Lab’s CEO says the company will try to recover the first-stage booster of its Electron rocket to save time and money.
“Electron is going reusable,” CEO Peter Beck announced today at the annual SmallSat conference in Logan, Utah.
But Rocket Lab will take a different route to rocket reusability: Rather than having the booster fire its engines for a retro landing on its feet, the rocket core will be built to withstand the fiery forces of atmospheric re-entry and pop open a parachute to slow itself down. Then it would get plucked from the sky by a helicopter flying out from a ship stationed in the Pacific near Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch complex.
Beck explained that doing reusability the SpaceX way wouldn’t work for Rocket Lab’s “smaller is better” business model. “That takes a small launch vehicle and turns it into a medium launch vehicle,” he said.
The plan for recovering and reusing boosters is a turnabout for Rocket Lab, which has focused on low-cost production of its currently non-reusable, carbon-composite-based Electron rocket and 3-D-printed Rutherford rocket engines.
Referring to an age-old idiom for unlikely behavior, Beck recalled that at one time he promised he’d eat his hat if he went down the reusability road. “Unfortunately, I find myself in the position of eating my hat,” he said today.
The big challenge is to find a way to get rid of the 3.5 gigajoules of energy that are generated during re-entry, which Beck noted is enough energy to power 57,000 homes for an instant. Rocket Lab’s engineers now believe it can be done, based on readings that were recorded during the company’s first seven launches and processed using modeling for computational fluid dynamics.
Beck said the solution will involve “a lot of TPS” – that is, high-temperature materials suitable for a thermal protection system – and aerodynamic decelerators. He didn’t go into detail about those measures, however.
Rocket Lab said the first phase of its reusability campaign would involve upgrades to the Electron rocket that will enable the recovery of the first-stage booster from the Pacific. The booster would then be shipped back to the launch complex for refurbishment.
“Goal 1 is just to get it through ‘the Wall,’ ” Beck said, referring to re-entry.
The second phase would involve stationing a helicopter on a recovery ship downrange from the launch pad. During its post-launch descent, the booster would open up a parachute with a long lead line. The helicopter would rendezvous with the booster, use a specially designed boom to grab onto the line, and bring the booster back to the ship. The booster would then be brought back to shore for refurbishment and reuse.
Beck said the operation could eventually drive the price for an Electron launch below its current level. But he said the “fundamental reason is to increase launch frequency.” If a booster could be successfully recovered and reused at least once with minimal expense, that would be the equivalent of doubling the rocket production rate, Beck said.
Rocket Lab said first-stage recovery attempts would begin in the coming year, but Beck declined to be more specific about the time frame. He did say that the company’s eighth launch, scheduled for as early as next week, would be equipped with an advanced data recorder system code-named Brutus to guide the design work for future rockets.
Thanks to investments from the likes of Lockheed Martin and Khosla Ventures, Rocket Lab has achieved unicorn status with a private market valuation well beyond $1 billion. But it’s also facing the prospect of increased competition from small- to medium-size launch systems that are being developed by Virgin Orbit, Relativity Space, Vector Launch, Firefly Aerospace and other companies.
Update for 12:20 a.m. PT Aug. 8: A previous version of this report cited $5 million as the list price for a Rocket Lab launch, but Beck did not mention a price point – and in fact, Bloomberg News reports that the starting cost for a launch has risen to $7.5 million.