Rocket Lab CEO says companies not reusing rockets are making ‘a dead-end product’

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  • Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck has dramatically changed his tune on the reuse of rockets, a practice by Elon Musk’s SpaceX that has become increasingly popular.
  • Beck said Tuesday, “I think that anyone who isn’t developing a reusable launch vehicle at the moment is developing a dead-end product because it’s so obvious that it’s a fundamental approach.” Which has to be baked from day one.”
  • Rocket Lab’s approach to recovering its Electron booster is to guide it back through the atmosphere and deploy a parachute. The company will then use a helicopter to stop the parachute over the ocean and lower the booster back to land.

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Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck was once confident that his company would never reuse its rockets like Elon Musk’s SpaceX — to the point that Beck promised to eat his hat.

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A few swallowed threads of assorted hats later, Beck changed his tune dramatically. Rocket Lab is nearly finished with a development program that uses helicopters to capture the Electron booster after launch, and the company is designing its Neutron rocket to be reusable when it starts in 2024.

“I think anyone who isn’t developing a reusable launch vehicle at the moment is developing a dead-end product because it’s so obvious it’s a fundamental approach that has to be baked in from day one.” is,” Beck told reporters during one. Press conference on Tuesday.

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Beck’s announcement is in line with the spirit Musk, who told CNBC In response to the Rocket Lab recovery video that “complete and rapid reusability is the holy grail of orbital rocketry.”

Traditionally, rockets that launch satellites and spacecraft have been expendable – meaning the booster, which is the largest and most expensive part of the rocket that gets it off the ground, is discarded after launch. Is. SpaceX took the lead in reusing Orbital-class rocket boosters, with Musk’s company regularly unloading its Falcon boosters after launch and reusing each up to 10 times.

Rocket Lab’s approach to recovering its Electron booster differs from that of SpaceX, which uses engines to slow down during re-entry and deploys wide legs to land on the larger pad. Rocket Lab guides the electron booster into the atmosphere and then deploys a parachute. The company plans to use a helicopter to intercept the parachute over the ocean and take the booster back to land.

It is becoming more practical for companies to reuse orbital rockets in a variety of ways. SpaceX plans to take its rockets a step further with Starship, Rocket Lab is adding parachutes and helicopters for Electron, Virgin Orbit touts a 747 jet approach as the reusable foundation of its launches, And Relativity Space just unveiled plans to reuse its upcoming Terran R rocket. ,

Some US companies focus on expendable rockets, such as Astra, ABL Space, Firefly Space and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Helicopter rocket catches next year

Rocket Lab launched an Electron mission carrying satellites to BlackSky last week and, for the third time, successfully recovered the booster from the water after making it back through the atmosphere.

“The next recovery flight that we will make is the one where we will go and really catch it,” Beck said on Tuesday.

The timing of that next recovery effort depends on “helicopter readiness,” Beck said, as Rocket Lab has a “pretty large helicopter in the works” and it “needs some modifications” to be ready to capture the Electron. “.

“We certainly expect that flight to happen within the first half of next year, or as soon as practicable,” Beck said.

Rocket Lab is using a new thermal protection system on its Electron booster to strengthen it for recoveries, a type of graphite that gives a carbon fiber rocket an “almost metallic look,” Beck said.

Once Rocket Lab completes the recovery test program, Beck expects “about 50% of electron flights to be reusable versus expendable.” Rocket Lab’s main goal of reusing rockets is to improve production output.

Reflecting on 2021, in which his company has completed five launches so far, Beck said the year has been “terrible” and “really, really difficult.” He cited New Zealand’s COVID lockdown procedures as the main pain point for the company, saying it has slowed down the company’s production and schedules.

But Rocket Lab is preparing to boom again next year.

“We have a bunch of launch vehicles sitting on the floor, and we’re going to have to be very busy in 2022,” Beck said.

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