Interview New Zealand's Rocket Lab is set to launch another Electron rocket - a precursor to the rocketeer's first attempt at catching a descending booster. The Register caught up with CEO Peter Beck to discuss helicopters, Mars and visiting Venus.
The launch, dubbed "Love at First Insight", is currently scheduled for no earlier than 16 November (owing to an "out of family ground sensor reading" when the launch window opened yesterday morning) and has the primary objective of popping a pair of Earth-observation satellites into orbit for Black Sky. Also featuring on the launch is Rocket Lab's latest evolution of its recovery technology.
Unlike SpaceX's crowd-pleasing propulsive antics, the first stage of the Rocket Lab Electron will descend by parachute and attempt a controlled splashdown into the ocean, making it the third ocean recovery (if all goes well.) The eventual plan is for a helicopter to snag the stage as it descends. This time, however, everything will be done except an attempt to catch the rocket.
The launch is the second since a payload, also a pair of Black Sky satellites, was lost on the "Running Out Of Toes" mission when the second stage engine was shut down prematurely. The incident somewhat overshadowed the ocean splashdown and recovery of the booster and has left the company with an unenviable track record; two payload losses in 21 launches is a stark reminder of the difficulty of the operation.
"What we're doing with this one," Beck tells us, "is everything we've done before, except we're bringing in the helicopter from two hundred nautical miles from the shore, and we're going to match it [the descending booster] and basically follow it down and simulate a catch."
It'll be an impressive manoeuvre. The Electron will have had to endure huge amounts of pressure as the nine Rutherford engines in its base face temperatures of up to 2,200°C as the stage returns. And that's before the parachutes pop out and the booster falls to an altitude where it could be captured by helicopter.
"The hardest part is not actually hooking it," remarks Beck with the confidence of someone who is not going to be flying the helicopter. "It is not that hard," he adds. "The hard part is from launch through to [descending] under the parachute; managing all that trajectory, getting it where it should be and getting the helicopter at the right time where it should be at the right altitude."
If things go to plan, the helicopter will attempt to snag the descending booster on the next recovery mission before all that expensive hardware encounters the water. Not that the Electron is particularly expensive when compared to the considerably larger alternatives but, as Beck says, "If you can get that first stage back, then you're recovering basically 80 per cent of the cost of the vehicle." Probably a bit more, once one considers the bill of materials and labour involved in building the launcher.
The launch will be from Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. It has another pad in the US, at Wallops Island, but is awaiting approval from NASA for its autonomous flight termination system before Electrons can start launching.
However, a second pad has been constructed in New Zealand that Beck described as "a really big enabler" due to the increase in launch cadence it could afford the company. The pad has yet to be formally opened, but Beck says: "It looks just like a pad... so there's not a tremendous amount of stuff [left] to do there."
The second New Zealand pad should start seeing action next year, and the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) precursor mission for the Lunar Gateway should also get off the ground in 2022.
"A lot of stuff is way easier," says Beck of the development of the Neutron and its infrastructure compared to the "dinky" (his words) world of the Electron. "When you have a bit of scale, it's so much easier."
Not so easy is life as a public company. While Rocket Lab has an impressive order book with customers including NASA and the US Space Force and, according to Beck, was "gearing up to being a public company for a couple of years," things have changed.
"It is different," he admits. "I guess what the thing that's less comfortable for me is that we only ever used to talk about stuff once we had done it or it was very, very far on. Now we have to talk about stuff that, you know, we haven't done yet, and is in the future."
And the space industry does so love its PowerPoint rockets. Even if Beck much prefers the real thing. ®
"Hey there," I say. "I'm just here to fix your desktop machine."
"My desktop machine?"
"Yeah, just here to sort out the problems you were having with it."
"I'm not having problems with it."
"Sure you are."
"No I'm not."
"You are – I was talking to you on the phone about... 83 minutes ago and you said you were having a little problem with your desktop machine."
"I... don't think I did."
"Ah.. yes," Shannon says.
"Yeah, so we were talking and you said you couldn't help me because your desktop was playing up."
"I... don't... Which department are you from?" he asks.
"I.T." I say.
"I... don't think... I've ever met you," Shannon says.
"Well I'm not from your I.T. department."
"Sorry?" Shannon asks, even more confused than before.
"I'm one of your clients. I was asking you for information on the warranty on some hardware of ours because no one had turned up inside the contracted service period. I gave our reception a call on the way up in the lift and they told me there's still no sign of anyone."
"And when I called you yesterday you said you'd call me back within the hour – but you didn't – so I thought it was probably that same desktop problem that you were talking about this morning."
"We have our own in-house people," Shannon says. "We're a service provider." "Might I suggest you just truncate that to 'service' and drop the whole 'provider' bit - just to keep you safe from some sort of false advertising scenario."
"I don't see..."
"Anyway," I continue, "as I said I thought I'd pop over and take a look at your desktop because if we're not seeing your engineers (and we have a guaranteed service window contract), then you – probably with no contract at all, being an internal user – are probably even less likely to get your desktop issue sorted out."
"I don't have a desktop issue," Shannon repeats again.
"You must do, because this morning when I rang to complain you said you couldn't bring up our contract details because you had a desktop issue. Then you said that you couldn't give me a timeframe for the repair because you couldn't open a new job without my client code. And not our actual client code, but an internal client code which we wouldn't have – because it's internal."
Shannon has decided that silence may be his best option.
"So I thought it's probably quickest for us both if I come over and take a look."
"I don't think..."
"Don't worry – I'll be at least as professional as your engineers. And by as professional as your engineers I mean the guy who showed up three days ago to swap out a failed drive, put the replacement drive in the tray the wrong way around and then rammed it repeatedly into the slot to try and get it installed – smashing the connector and shorting some of the connector pins together." "I... wasn't aware of..."
"Sure you were. I talked to you about this yesterday because your engineer said he'd be back yesterday with a replacement cable loom – only..."
"Look," Shannon says, trying to wrest control of this conversation from me. "I'm sure that there's a reasonable explanation for all this – a supply-chain issue, or.."
"But you said this morning that it was a desktop issue."
"Well I'm sure at the time I was having some sort of issue, but my desktop is working fine now."
"Are you sure? Only I've got three different-sized hammers here..." I say, pointing at toolbox. "I also have a 1/2 gallon jar of petrol – which probably has a street value higher than your desktop machine at the moment – also a tin of homemade thermite as well as a reciprocating saw with some sort of organic staining splashed all over it."
"Does this carpet pull up?" I ask.
"LOOK" Shannon says. "There's nothing wrong with my machine. If there was I'd definitely be having one of our in house people take a look at it, simply to protect information we'd consider commercially sensitive."
"And by commercially sensitive information I'm assuming you're talking about a manila folder in your top drawer with the label 'How shit we are'?" I ask.
"Our commercial information," Shannon says angrily, "is none of your concern. If my desktop machine ever had a problem – which I doubt – then we would have taken care of it."
Who's that striding through your server room with a crash cart full of drives whistling Bernard Herrmann's "Twisted Nerve"? He doesn't look familiar...
"So you think it might be a server issue?" I ask.
"It could have been."
"Well, I can't tell you how relieved I am to hear that."
"Why's that?" Shannon asks.
"Oh, because my assistant let himself into your server room about 10 minutes ago with a toolbox full of drives mounted the wrong way in their trays."
"Maybe you'll see an engineer quicker than we have?" I say, easing myself out the door. ®