Rocket Lab of Long Beach took a major step towards its goal of reusability Thursday with the launch and first successful recovery of its Electron rocket.
The rocket launched from New Zealand, released its payload and the first stage glided under parachutes back to Earth for a splashdown into the Pacific Ocean.
The company’s rockets are called Electron, designed to launch groups of small satellites into orbit. On Thursday’s mission, the company’s 16th, Rocket Lab launched 30 satellites into space from its Mahia, New Zealand, complex. The company also launches out of Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia.
Included in the mission payload is a 25-kg satellite, which splits into two and demonstrates its space debris roundup capabilities. Called Terminator Tape, the technology solves the low-Earth orbit debris challenge and was developed by Tethers Unlimited Inc., with Millennium Space Systems of El Segundo and TriSept Corp.
Another notable traveler on board Electron was a 3D-printed statue of the garden gnome called “Gnome Chompski,” from the “Half-Life” video games. The statue’s presence was intended to simulate mass.
Reusability — which involved fishing the intake booster out of the ocean for this mission — has been the goal of the company since its inception and in 2019, founder Peter Beck announced that intent.
“There’s nothing like having a flight article that’s returned to understand the margin here and the margin there and which bits worked well and which bits roasted up completely,” said Rocket Lab Founder Beck. “If we get the stage back we’ll know how much work we have ahead of us. Recovery for our customers is really about making sure there are more launch opportunities available.”
Beck said recovery of the vehicles ultimately lowers customer cost and makes launch “more prolific.” A series of Electrons are in production.
In 2019, the company announced plans to save most of the Electron rocket, eventually with a helicopter catching the booster by the parachutes.
Watch the Rocket Lab launch replay here: