Rocket Lab launch switcheroo shows the flexibility of the new orbital economy

New Zealand-based launch provider Rocket Lab has announced its next commercial mission, “As The Crow Flies,” taking an Astro Digital satellite to orbit in October. Interestingly, this launch originally had a different payload, but was switched out on fairly short notice — not exactly a common practice in this business.

The launch, scheduled for a two-week window starting October 15, will take a single spacecraft created by Astro to low Earth orbit. Corvus — the genus to which crows and ravens belong — is the name of the series of imaging satellites the company has already put up there; hence the name of the mission.

But this mission wasn’t scheduled to launch for some time yet. October’s launch, the fifth this year from Rocket Lab, was set to be another customer’s, but that customer seems to have needed a bit of extra time to prepare — and simply requested a later launch date.

And because the weather is fine, and one Electron rocket is much like another, Rocket Lab and Astro Digital just decided to use that launch window anyway and head to orbit a bit early.

This kind of thing really isn’t done much in the world of launch services. There are so many moving parts and so much red tape, not to mention weather, labor and everything else involved, that launch dates are often set years in advance, frequently delayed anyway, and then either lift off or sit on the launchpad until they do. But flexibility is fundamental to the Rocket Lab business model, as founder and CEO Peter Beck has said repeatedly.

“Electron is a launch on demand service — we’re ready when the launch customer is,” he told TechCrunch regarding today’s announcement. “Electron is designed for standardized, rapid production — we don’t build to tail numbers. This ensures we can have launch vehicles on standby, ready to be assigned a payload for launch on demand.”

When the inevitable delays happen, whether for product, funding or regulatory reasons, both provider and customer have to be ready to work with one another.

“The systems are complex and everything has to be right before launch, so we always want to ensure our customers have the flexibility to make launch timing work for them,” Beck said. “We’re accommodating that reality but allowing our customers to adjust their launch schedule as required, without causing disruption to the other missions on our manifest.”

As the new space economy grows, the old methods and infrastructure are increasingly unable to keep up, necessitating this kind of flexibility. Other launch providers are building toward small scales and adjustable time frames as well, and there’s a line around the globe of small satellite makers who are waiting to take advantage.

You’ll be able to watch the launch from the Māhia Peninsula complex live whenever weather permits takeoff, sometime after October 14.