In a major milestone, Rocket Lab successfully snagged its launch vehicle mid-air with a helicopter.
This mission, called “There And Back Again,” began when the company’s Electron rocket lifted off from Pad A at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 6:49 p.m. Eastern on Monday. Following the delivery of several dozen satellites into low-Earth orbit, the first stage descended back down, cascading on a parachute as a helicopter carrying CEO Peter Beck onboard performed an aerial rendezvous at 6,500 feet.
Rocket Lab performed the sky catch with its Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, which released a hook on a long line to snag Electron’s parachute line. The company had previously conducted a demo of this recovery maneuver in March 2020.
Monday’s mission didn’t go exactly as planned, however. The pilot decided to offload the booster from the helicopter, sending it towards a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The crew chose to do this when they realized that the booster's load on the chopper was acting differently than how it behaved in earlier testing and simulations. Rocket Lab was aiming to have Electron avoid hitting the ocean during this maneuver, according to a mission press kit. But Beck still called the day a success.
“Incredible catch by the recovery team, can’t begin to explain how hard that catch was and that the pilots got it,” Beck wrote on Twitter. “They did release it after hook up as they were not happy with the way it was flying, but no big deal, the rocket splashed down safely and the ship is loading it now.”
Electron is one of the company’s main areas of focus because it especially designed the rocket to deliver small satellites into precise orbits and to do so affordably with minimal time in between launches. Monday’s mission could transform into future savings and significant business gains if its boosters can be reused more successfully.
Another notable achievement was Rocket Lab’s successful deployment of 34 satellites to orbit on Monday, bringing Electron’s total to 146.
Rocket Lab’s next mission is scheduled for some time later this month, according to their announcement describing “There And Back Again.”