On Dec. 21, 2015, large-rocket maker SpaceX made history when it successfully landed a Falcon 9 first stage rocket on Earth, after first using it to launch a satellite to orbit. On May 2, 2022, small-rocket maker Rocket Lab USA (RKLB 3.04%) did something similar.
After launching an Electron rocket to orbit at 6:50 p.m. ET Monday evening, and detaching the first stage from the second stage three minutes later, Rocket Lab proceeded to parachute the first stage back to Earth -- and snag it midair with a helicopter.
There 🚀and back again 🪂 pic.twitter.com/GEsOmpYKFh-- Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) May 2, 2022
From launch to recovery, the entire operation took just 16 minutes. Here's a closer-up view of the moment just before helicopter-capture was announced, and applause broke out at Rocket Lab headquarters:
Success and disappointment
But now here's the bad news. Just minutes after snagging its prize, Rocket Lab's helicopter was forced to drop its payload and dump it in the ocean.
As Rocket Lab explained in a conference call later in the evening, the helicopter was rated to carry loads as high as five tons, and the rocket first stage only weighed one ton. But in simulations prior to the event, Rocket Lab anticipated the rocket-encumbered helicopter would fly differently from how it did in real life. Predetermined safety parameters were exceeded, and so protocol dictated that the helicopter pilot ditch the rocket rather than risk the aircraft.
The result was that after catching its rocket, Rocket Lab almost immediately dumped it in the ocean, where salt water may have damaged it so that it cannot, in fact, be reused as planned.
What happens next
Rocket Lab quickly recovered the rocket from the water anyway, trundled it aboard a ship, and returned it to base for analysis. There, said CEO Peter Beck, "engineers will analyze and determine if Electron is suitable for reflight." If the salt water damage isn't too bad, Beck said he still has "hope that you'll see this vehicle back on the pad once again."
What would that mean for Rocket Lab, if it can reuse its slightly damp Electron?
In announcing plans to begin recovering rockets back in 2019, Beck explained his primary goal in developing reusability was to accelerate the rate at which Rocket Lab launches rockets -- by not having to build an entire new rocket for each launch. Simply being able to reuse a rocket stage once, said Beck, would be "fantastic," and double the company's launch cadence.
What it means for Rocket Lab
And he may have been being conservative. Investment bank Stifel has commented that it's likely a reusable Electron could actually be reused as many as "5-10 times before being retired," potentially permitting Rocket Lab to launch as many as 38 times a year. Stifel also pointed out that Rocket Lab will save a lot of money with reusability, given that "80% of the cost of an Electron is in the first stage of the vehicle" -- the part that gets recovered.
In that regard, it's worth pointing out: Last year, Rocket Lab collected revenue of $62 million from its rocket launches -- but spent $64 million building the things (according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence). That resulted in a gross loss, but an 80% reduction in rocket costs could potentially transform that equation into a $49 million gross profit.
Of course, all of the above assumes Rocket Lab can perfect its rocket capture procedures and succeed in making reusability work. The good news there is that Beck thinks changes to the recovery procedures will be "trivial" in extent -- a matter of simply updating simulations to input new real-world data from Monday's flight. In fact, he says 99% of what Rocket Lab wanted to accomplish with Monday's flight and recovery went just as planned.
And just as soon as Rocket Lab gets its other already scheduled launches accomplished, and has the time to do it, it will plan to try to snatch another rocket out of midair -- this time hopefully with 100% mission success.