This mission, labeled “There and Back Again,” took off at 6:50 pm ET.
Company communications advisor, Murielle Baker, after initially declaring success, came onto the companies webcast to acknowledge the pilot of the helicopter dropped the rocket “at his discretion” after experiencing a “different load characteristic” than he had during test runs of the catch.
“We witnessed a spectacular catch,” she said.
The webcast showed the helicopter snag the rocket’s parachute about 15 minutes after launch, and a cheer arose from mission control, but moments later a disappointed sigh could be heard and the feed cut out.
“It demands extreme precision. Several critical milestones need to align perfectly to ensure a successful capture,” Baker had said earlier in the webcast.
The Electron rocket, Rocket Lab’s small rocket which had launched nearly two dozen successful missions prior to Monday’s launch, did successfully complete its primary objective: It deployed 34 satellite payloads for a number of commercial operators, bringing the total number of Electron-launched satellites in space to 146.
After separating from the first-stage booster, the Electron’s second-stage continued to orbit to fulfill the satellite deployment while the booster fell back to Earth at nearly 5,150 miles per hour. Once near enough to the Earth’s surface, the booster deployed parachutes to slow its descent. A helicopter waited to snag the booster’s parachute with a hook.
Catching the mid-air rocket booster is a big part of Rocket Lab’s eventual goal of reusable rockets.
NASA has retrieved spent rocket boosters from the Atlantic Ocean after a Space Shuttle launch. Rocket Lab plans to pursue the helicopter technique to recover its boosters. The company has said Electron is not large enough to carry the fuel supply needed for an upright landing, and a saltwater ocean landing can cause corrosion and physical damage.
A customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, a large twin-engine chopper usually used for search and rescue missions and offshore oil and gas transportation, was used in Monday’s grab. After the successful capture of the booster, the company planned to fly the machinery to an at-sea recovery vessel before moving to the company’s production complex for assessment. But, ultimately it was jettisoned into the ocean and recovered form there. Ocean landings aren’t optimal — the sea water can cause corrosion, which is why Rocket Lab hopes to snag the booster before it meets the water.
Rocket Lab has previously fished boosters from the ocean in three of Electron’s 25 earlier missions. This was the first attempt at a mid-air catch.
Since its start in 2006, Rocket Lab has deployed satellites to orbit for customers including NASA, the US Space Force, the National Reconnaissance Office and Canon.