Spaceflight startup Rocket Lab reached a major milestone on Thursday. It successfully launched one of its rockets into orbit. Then, the small booster returned to Earth safely and gently landed in the ocean thanks to the use of parachutes.
Although companies like SpaceX have already become synonymous with rocket recovery, this achievement is a big one for Rocket Lab. It will help the company stay competitive in the private spaceflight industry. Moreover, it is a much-needed win after a series of launch failures and mishaps.
Using a parachute to recover a rocket booster certainly isn’t as high-tech as SpaceX’s approach. Fortunately, though, it is just as effective—according to Rocket Lab at least. Up until now, the startup’s Electron rocket has been a disposable part of the process. Through 15 launches, Rocket Lab has had to build a new vehicle each time.
That is a costly, time-consuming, and inefficient process for a startup that bases its business on being more affordable than its competitors for small missions. As such, the ability to recover rockets is a key part of its strategy going forward.
Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. Rocket Lab has been slowly working towards the goal with each of its launches. It has tested various steps of the recovery process along the way before finally putting them all together with Thursday’s launch.
Following a successful deployment of the parachute, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck tweeted a celebratory image of the Electron rocket. The startup plans to share more photos from the mission in the coming days.
My new favourite image of 2020. pic.twitter.com/lEIXPyCIkI
— Peter Beck (@Peter_J_Beck) November 20, 2020
Meanwhile, Rocket Lab now has to go out into the Pacific Ocean to pull its spent rocket from the water. Teams will examine the hardware to determine what shape it is in. From there, they’ll be able to decide if the Electron rocket is able to fly a second mission.
More Ambitious Plans Ahead
Despite Thursday’s successful recovery, Rocket Lab is setting its sights set on an even smoother process. Rather than allowing its rockets to fall into the ocean, the startup wants to catch them in mid-air with a helicopter after slowing their descent with a parachute.
Yes, the plan sounds insane. It does have some potential, though. The technique could work if it’s able to slow the rocket down to a safe speed. After all, unlike SpaceX’s strategy of using autonomous drone ships, Rocket Lab would need a manned helicopter to carry out each recovery. Before it can put a pilot at risk, it needs to ensure that the process can be executed safely.
If Rocket Lab does find a way to catch its spent vehicles, it would be very helpful. Dropping them into the ocean might work for now. However, the recovery process is certainly complicated not only by the impact of the water’s surface but by the water itself.
Thursday’s launch is something worth celebrating for now, but in the days ahead Rocket Lab has more work ahead of it.