Friday, August 9, 2019

Rocket Lab to Attempt to Recover and Reuse Boosters

We've met the small booster company Rocket Lab on these pages before.  They're a small company, originally from New Zealand, now multinational, specializing in launching small payloads (under 220 kilograms) with their Electron booster.  Originally, they expressed no interest in trying to land boosters to recover and reuse them.  Then they started getting very successful, and a funny thing happened.  Ars Technica has the story with a long, interesting interview with Peter Beck, Rocket Lab's Founder and CEO.

Their success at what they do has increased demand for their vehicles and they realized that if they don't throw the boosters away after one launch, they don't need to build as many.
Scaling production is not a trivial thing. We need to quadruple production over the next couple of years. You can take any product on this planet—a chair or a consumer product—and say I want a 4x production of that product. And that's no trivial thing to do. When you have a supply chain as they have in the aerospace industry, which is really quite fragile, and you're not just asking yourself to scale four times—you're asking your suppliers to scale four times. Take the engine, for example: even if we wanted to double engine production and order a bunch more printers, those printers are six- or 12-month lead time. Really, we need to be all in. We're crazy-expanding our factories and hiring. But this is an additional step we need to take to increase launch opportunities.
The approach they've taken to recovering the boosters has never been done on a commercial scale.  They plan to catch the booster falling to Earth with a helicopter.

While I realize that this is a computer-generated video, I didn't notice the helicopter jerk downward when it suddenly supports that extra weight.  "For every action there's an equal and opposite reaction" isn't just good for CGI, it's the law.  Nor did I notice the booster swinging like a pendulum and pulling the helicopter around as it does so, which I think is unavoidable.  In any case, this ought to be entertaining to watch.  Peter Beck, again:
The idea of mid-air capture has a long history, right back to the Corona missions in the 1950s and 1960s. That's not new. And it's funny, if you look at the helicopter capture, most people think that's the hardest thing to do. But that's really not hard at all. That's the bit I'm least worried about being successful. It's getting it through the atmosphere and down to a sensible speed that is really where the challenge lies. That's where a lot of the innovation is going to come from in this program. We have some very unique aerodynamic decelerators that we'll be employing to control the reentry but also to scrub the velocity.
The article is worth a read.  Rocket Lab sounds like they've been instrumenting boosters for a while now and trying to understand every detail of what they're going through - Beck mentions "thousands of channels of data" coming down from every launch.  When asked about when they plan their first recovery, he talks about the reality of preferring to do several tests, each a bit more intricate than the last, rather than trying a complete recovery right away.
Yeah, so the next flight on the pad here is an important one [Flight 8, due to launch later this month (Note: from New Zealand - SiG)]. We have some critical flight instrumentation on that. Flight 10 is a block upgrade, with some visible changes to the booster. Really, after flight 10, there will be new things we're trying on every flight. But look, this is a very, very difficult thing to do, and I'm reluctant to define a flight number that we're going to do a full recovery on. It's a very methodical and iterative approach we're taking here.
Asked how many times they'd like to reuse boosters, Beck says, "If we could reuse it once we've effectively doubled production. Once would be wonderful. Anything more would be really fantastic."


  1. I wouldn't want to be the chopper pilot!

  2. Hi Si!!,
    OK Pal!!, Go fix a good whiskey drink, pull up a chair and relax!! "MAR" (Mid Air Retrieval) in the AeroSpace Industry is "Old Hat!!!" Been there, Done That, Got the T-shirt!!... a Lot of T-shirts!!
    Any body remember the Ryan "Firebee" Target Drone!! 'Ran out of juice, deployed the chute, Chopper snagged it ...back to the pad.. re-use!!...(Late 50's vintage)
    Later there was the compliments of the "Peanut wizard," the Boeing ALCM (Air Launched Cruise Missile ) to replace the B-1A... Irvin Scare-O-Space developed the "Mid Air Retrieval" system for it.. a 75foot dia. "Annular Ring" Chute with a 24' "Engagement Chute" above it!! Worked pretty good but boy was it a "BITCH!!!!" to Pack... Get all that "Compressed!!!!!!!!!" in to an 18"x 12" x 24" "BOX!!!!" Basically the compartment where the Nuke went!! Took about a week!!!
    'Used the same Chute with a few mods on another "Classified" Missile Project... Fortunately the "Box" it was packed in was about 3 times bigger than the ALCM Box so it was a lot less hassle!!!
    These were "ROUND CHUTES!!!!" then the "Ram Air's" came on the scene!! Packing time got cut from days to hours... just a few if that much!! (Less material, same space, go figure!!!!??"
    Anyway, these are the mid night ramblings of "The Old Rigger!!" PS, I'm not the only one!! We are a small community!! I am Glad to be part of!!
    Audentes, Fortuna, Ivat,
    skybill-standing by

    1. OH!!! Before I forget,
      There was "Kissler Aerospace" 1998-99 vintage... They wanted to be the "Fed-X" of the Low earth Orbit satellite Launch Industry!!!! They wanted to "Recover their booster and 2nd stage vehicles, then refurb, re-fuel and re-use them!!" I was with IRVIN thru the development of the Booster recovery program and got to the test drop of the "6 Pac!!" (6 ea., 156 foot dia. Ringsail chutes!!!!" before the project folded!! Got photos and vids in my archives if anybody thinks I'm kidding... Ohyeah, go ask "LUCKY!!!!" the C5A Loadmaster at the Yuma Proving grounds where we dropped it!!
      Blue skies,
      Black Death,

    2. PS The "Booster" sans fuel on re-entry was "42,000 POUNDS!!!!!!!!" Slow that piece down so it don't make a dent!!!!!

    3. Good stuff, skybill!

      As far as I know, the high resolution spy sats were dropping film canisters that got snagged by airplanes until not that long ago. I think it's all done by high resolution digital downlinks now, but I don't have anything to do with that. (Standard disclaimer)

      The Rocket Lab booster is carbon fiber so I'm sure weighs less than conventional metal boosters (or else they'd use metal) but I have no data on what it weighs. I just think it's going to be heavy enough to make that helicopter sweat.

    4. Empty mass of first stage is 0.95 tonnes, well within the capability of the kind of chopper they will use.

    5. So a metric "tonne" is 2200 pounds and that's 2090. I think it's going to make that helicopter drop a bit when they start to lift it.

      That's all I was getting at.

    6. That it will! It wasn't a great animation...must have been produced for the suits.

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