DeepSpace: Rocket Lab bucks the saying that ‘space is hard’ with 4th Electron success

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket lifts off for the fifth time, March 29th. (Rocket Lab)

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Rocket Lab continues to buck the adage that “space is hard” with its small but increasingly reliable Electron rocket. After a slight range hardware malfunction caused a launch abort just shy of orbit during Electron’s inaugural May 2017 launch attempt, Rocket Lab fixed the issue and returned to flight, successfully completing Electron’s first orbital launch in January 2018. On November 11th, 2018, the rocket completed its first truly commercial launch, placing seven various satellite into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), rapidly followed by Electron’s fourth successful launch on December 16th, barely one month later.

On March 29th, Rocket Lab completed yet another milestone launch for Electron, successfully placing its heaviest payload – an experimental ~150 kg DARPA spacecraft known as R3D2 – into an accurate orbit. Even relative to SpaceX’s barebones Falcon 1 launch campaign, which attempted five launches – two successfully – over a three year career, Rocket Lab’s Electron has progressed at an extraordinary pace, taking less than two years to complete its fifth launch and achieving its first launch success after just one attempt and eight months of flight operations.

Relentless progress

  • To find a rocket with a comparable record of success less than two years after its first launch attempt, one must jump back more than half a century to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Russia and the US were putting their industrial mights to the challenge of achieving spacefaring ‘firsts’. Almost all of those original vehicles – including Redstone, Atlas, Delta, Thor, Titan, and even Saturn V – were able to weather early failures and achieve extraordinary launch cadences just 12-24 months after their debuts.
    • None, however, were developed as an entirely commercial rocket with almost exclusively private funds, although ESA’s Ariane 3 and 4 vehicles nearly fit the bill, with exemplary commercial track records and impressive acceleration from debut to high launch cadences.
  • Incredibly, Rocket Lab has brought Electron from paper to its fourth successful launch in ~16 months on what can only be described as a shoestring budget relative to all past efforts, perhaps even Elon Musk and SpaceX.
    • According to public investment records, the small US-based, New Zealand-operated company may have reached orbit for the first time with less than $100M, including ~$70M in equity investment and unspecified development funding from DARPA in the early 2010s.
  • Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is quite small, measuring 1.2 m (~4 ft) wide, 17 m (56 ft) tall, and 12,500 kg (27,600 lb) at liftoff, anywhere from a quarter to half the size of SpaceX’s Falcon 1, by most measures.
    • Electron is capable of placing 150–225 kg (330–495 lb) into either a 550 km (340 mi) sun synchronous orbit (SSO) or a lower low Earth orbit (LEO).
    • Electron is advertised with a commercial list price of around $6M.
  • Aside from Electron’s industry-defying record of achievement, its R3D2 launch is impressive for another reason: the cost of the payload relative to the cost of launch. For a rocket on its fifth-ever launch, DARPA reportedly spent no less than $25M to fund the development of the experimental R3D2 smallsat, while – as mentioned above – the cost of Electron’s launch could have been as low as ~$6M from ink to orbit.
    • In slightly different terms, Electron has now launched a payload that could be 4-5X more valuable than itself after just three prior launch successes and less than two years after beginning operations.
    • While ~$30M would not be a huge loss for a military agency like DARPA (FY19 budget: $3.4B), DARPA’s trust in Electron demonstrates impressive confidence in not just Electron, but also Rocket Lab’s standards of manufacturing, operations, and mission assurance.
  • Relative to a vehicle like Falcon 9 or Atlas V, Electron’s R3D2 mission would be comparable to launching spacecraft worth ~$250M to $500M after just five launches. Both larger rockets accomplished similar feats, but small launch vehicles are historically known for less than stellar reliability.
Rocket Lab’s New Zealand-based Electron factory, 2018. (Rocket Lab)

Go[ing] forth and conquer[ing]

  • Put simply, Rocket Lab has managed to build what appears to be a shockingly reliable small launch vehicle with a budget that would make Old Space companies whimper, all while offering a potential cadence of dozens of annual launches at per-launch costs as low as $6M.
    • While the cost-per-kg of a $6M Electron launch is still extremely high relative to larger rockets and rideshare opportunities, what Rocket Lab has achieved is nothing short of spectacular in the commercial spaceflight industry.
    • If there ever was an actual ‘space race’ to fill the small launch vehicle void created by the growth of small satellite launch demand, Rocket Lab has won that race beyond the shadow of a doubt. There is still plenty of room for competition and additional cost savings from a customer perspective, but Electron is so early to the party that future competition will remain almost entirely irrelevant for the better part of 2-3 more years.
  • According to CEO Peter Beck, the company’s ambition is to sustain monthly Electron launches in the nine remaining months of 2019. Flight 6 hardware is likely already on its way to Rocket Lab’s Mahia, New Zealand Launch Complex 1 (LC-1).

Mission Updates

  • The second launch of Falcon Heavy – the rocket’s commercial debut – is still scheduled to occur as early as April 7th, but a slip to April 9-10 is now expected. The massive rocket’s static fire – the first for a Block 5 Falcon Heavy – is set to occur as early as Wednesday, April 3rd.
  • After Falcon Heavy, Cargo Dragon’s CRS-17 resupply mission is firmly scheduled for April (April 25th), while the first dedicated Starlink launch is now NET May 2019.
  • In late May, SpaceX could launch Spacecom’s Amos-17 spacecraft, effectively free to the customer as part of a settlement following the tragic Amos-6 Falcon 9 anomaly that destroy the rocket, satellite, and large swaths of the LC-40 pad in September 2016.

Photo of the Week

NASASpaceflight forum contributor BocaChicaGal provided one of the best glimpses yet of SpaceX’s ongoing Starship prototype test campaign, thus far involving 5+ wet dress rehearsals (WDRs) and one or two Raptor preburner ignitions. The first integrated Raptor static fire (and potential hop test) could occur later this week.
(NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
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