Rocket Lab S-92A Catches, Drops Booster Stage

 - May 2, 2022, 9:44 PM
The first-stage booster of Rocket Lab's Electron rocket satellite was snagged in midair by a Sikorsky S-92A shortly after launch, only to be jettisoned when the pilot noticed "different load characteristics." (Photo: Rocket Lab)

After several weather-related delays, Rocket Lab’s “There and Back Again” Electron rocket satellite launcher blasted off from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 10:49 a.m. local time Tuesday morning. However, the attempt to hook and return its parachuting first-stage booster midair with a Sikorsky S-92A helicopter was only partially successful.

While the helicopter did manage to snare the falling rocket stage, the pilot elected to jettison it after noticing “different load characteristics than we’ve experienced in testing,” according to a company spokeswoman. Nevertheless, she said, “This is a monumental step forward in our program to make Electron a reusable launch vehicle.”

The spokeswoman said the outcome is what “you do expect when testing anything in the field for the first time. At his discretion, the pilot offloaded the stage for a successful splashdown, where it is being recovered by our [sea] vessel for transport back to our factory. We look forward to assessing it in detail…and, of course, getting ready for more helicopter catches soon.” 

The mission launched 34 low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites in sun-synchronous orbit from a variety of customers. Electron’s next launch, also from New Zealand, is tentatively scheduled for the end of this month and will carry NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (Capstone). This is expected to be the first spacecraft to operate in a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon.