Tuesday, January 31, 2023
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Rocket Lab’s first US launch: Big for the company and the site

Wallops Flight Center, VA — Off in the southwest, the last colors of sunset lit up the rim of the sky, as a crescent Moon and two planets lined up above. It was a gorgeous scene, but one that everyone was ignoring. Instead, all eyes were focused on a bright patch of artificial light on a barrier island a couple of miles away. The lights there were focused on a small, slender needle—small enough to be hauled to the launch pad by a pickup truck.

For years, the Electron rocket and the company behind it had been stuck in limbo at the Virginia launch site, waiting on various approvals—for regulatory agencies to share enough paperwork with each other to convince everyone that the launch was safe. Then weather and the end-of-year holidays kept pushing the launch back. But on Tuesday, everything went as smoothly as it is possible to imagine, and the Electron shot to orbit almost as soon as the launch window opened.

The launch is critical for Rocket Lab, which in some ways invested the future of the company in its Virginia operations. But it’s also critical for the launch site, which is billed as a spaceport but hasn’t seen much traffic leaving Earth.

About that launch

The Electron is a relatively small rocket, capable of putting only a few hundred kilograms into orbit, so the launch experience is very different from massive vehicles like the Shuttle, SLS, and Falcon Heavy. It’s quite a bit smaller than even the Falcon 9. So the launch experience is correspondingly different from what I’d heard from others about what experiencing a rocket launch is like. (My only prior experience was a vaguely remembered one over 40 years ago.)

While the electron was still visible from two miles away as flames first appeared underneath it, it quickly vanished as it left the launch pad, the bright flames were quickly all you could see thanks to the nighttime launch. Around the same time, the sound arrived from the launch pad two miles away. The best description I’ve read compared it to the noise of tearing fabric shifted to bass registers. On a heavy enough rocket, the bass is powerful enough to create a physical sensation; Electron lacked that punch.

Its low weight also meant Electron left the pad in a hurry. Heavy launch vehicles often seem to hesitate shortly after leaving the pad, leaving my mind struggling to accept that their acceleration is enough to send them off to space. If Electron had an equivalent moment, it was over just as soon as it began.

From there, the launch benefitted from the dry, cold, and impossibly clear skies that feature prominently in East Coast winters. Things went dark as the main engines shut down, but a bit of light quickly returned as the second-stage engine took over. The second stage remained dimly visible to the naked eye until a couple of minutes before it shut down, too. During this time, a couple of objects were briefly visible below the second stage—likely the first stage and/or fairings catching the last of the sunlight at altitude or heating up in the atmosphere.

Later reports indicated that the three satellites on board had separated successfully and had established communications with their operator, Hawkeye360, which will use them to track radio sources on Earth.

A key success

The Electron has an excellent performance record from its New Zealand launch site, so the smooth launch wasn’t a surprise. In many ways, the surprise was that it took this long—company spokesperson Morgan Bailey said that the company had been working on launching from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) since 2018. Lots of time was spent developing hardware that would destroy the rocket if it went too far off its planned trajectory. Last-minute paperwork being exchanged between NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration regarding the rocket was still causing delays as recently as December.

Despite those delays, Rocket Lab has invested heavily in Virginia, setting up a vehicle assembly area and control center in a building near MARS and building a dedicated Electron pad in the launch area. Having MARS as a launch option should allow the company to increase the pace of its operations and open it up to customers that, for convenience or security reasons, need to have launches occur within the US. Perhaps more significantly, the company is building its next launch vehicle, the Neutron, in a facility it has constructed just outside the gates to the MARS launch area.

Neutron is likely to be key to the company’s survival. Rocket Lab’s initial pitch was that Electron could provide a rapid turnaround for companies that needed small satellites in orbit quickly; it estimates that it can get something into orbit in as little as two weeks after receiving the hardware. But that hasn’t been as large a source of business as it might have hoped, as many satellite makers are willing to wait to benefit from the economics of ridesharing on a larger lift vehicle.

As a result, the company is now exploring cutting costs by reusing Electron’s first stage, which had been designed to be expendable. By contrast, Neutron is intended to have a fully reusable first stage from the start and will carry substantially larger payloads. And it will operate out of MARS as soon as it’s ready to launch—the company is already designing a landing area near the existing launch pads.

A win for MARS, too

The successful launch is a major win for the MARS site as well. There’s a lot of infrastructure at the Wallops Flight Center, but so far, it has not seen extensive use. The Antares rocket has typically done two launches annually for resupply missions to the International Space Station, and NASA generally uses the site for a handful of sounding rocket launches each year. While that places MARS ahead of a number of notional facilities that are calling themselves spaceports, it isn’t a large return on the investments in facilities at MARS.

But Electron is designed to be assembled and put into service quickly, so it has the potential to dramatically increase the number of launches from MARS. In fact, Rocket Lab already had a second vehicle in the assembly building on the day the first was sent to orbit. The greater use has the potential to bring many benefits to Wallops: More experience with launches can streamline procedures, a greater use of facilities can build up ancillary services, and so on.

It will also be critical because it will keep the place operating while Antares is expected to go on hiatus for a couple of years while switching to a newly designed engine.

MARS is unlikely to ever develop the level of facilities and activity that are features of a more famous site in Florida. But Rocket Lab’s success there is likely to be critical for the site’s success. And it definitely makes for a pretty place to watch a launch.

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