Rocket Lab says it’s on track to test recovering an Electron booster later this year as it also improves the payload performance of the small launch vehicle. Rocket Lab announced last week it completed drop tests of a dummy Electron first stage at its New Zealand launch site, demonstrating that its parachute would deploy as expected and slow the booster after re-entry. “We basically simulated the highest load case, where we drop a fully weighted dummy stage out of the sky and accelerate it to the highest load point and then pop the canopy,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said during a company webcast Aug. 5 held during the 34th Annual Small Satellite Conference. Beck said that was the “final test” of the overall recovery system for the Electron first stage, part of an effort the company announced one year earlier to recover and reuse the boosters. Rocket Lab tested on earlier launches the ability of the stage to perform a controlled re-entry, as well as using a helicopter to catch the stage as it descends under a parachute.
With the tests complete, Beck said Rocket Lab intends to make its first effort to recover a first stage on an upcoming launch, known as Flight 17 and expected to take place later this year. “That is really the final signoff before we’re ready to go fly Flight 17,” he said. “Flight 17 is sitting in the hangar.”
Beck said Rocket Lab won’t attempt to catch the stage in mid-air on the Flight 17 mission, focusing instead on simply recovering the booster from the ocean. “We’ll fish it out of the ocean, bring it back, put it in the factory and then we’ll really see what we’ve got,” he said. “That will determine how much work we have ahead of us.” Rocket Lab said last year it decided to pursue reusability in order to increase its launch rate without having to make major investments in increased booster production.