Launch provider Rocket Lab has a mission today — codenamed “Return to Sender,” it’s the company’s 16th launch, and it will carry, among other things, a payload that will demonstrate a technology to help safely deorbit satellites. It has a secondary mission that’s potentially more important for Rocket Lab and the launch business in general, however: an attempted recovery of the first-stage booster used during the flight. The launch is currently set for 8:44 PM EST (5:44 PM PST), and the webcast above will begin 30 minutes prior.
This is the first time that Rocket Lab will attempt to recover one of its launch vehicle first stages, and it’s significant in part because the company never intended to do this. Rocket Lab’s Electron was designed as a fully expendable launch vehicle, an intentionally different approach from other launch providers like SpaceX, that focused on creating a smaller launch craft that could be constructed more quickly and launched more cheaply, but that sacrificed reusability as a trade-off.
All that changed with the surprise announcement last year that Rocket Lab would be aiming to introduce partial reusability into its existing system. Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck explained during his presentation describing the reusability system that it would not involve a propulsive landing, like the kind used by SpaceX, but would instead use a navigation and guidance system to reorient the booster such that it would survive re-entry through an angled descent back into Earth’s atmosphere, and then deploy a parachute to slow it to the point where it could be caught by a helicopter and transported back to land.
Today’s recovery attempt won’t be a full test of that system as described; instead, it’ll see the first stage try to survive re-entry and then deploy its parachute, at which point it will hopefully float down to the ocean, from which Rocket Lab will then attempt to fish it out. The helicopter catch component, which Rocket Lab has demonstrated in a prior partial test, won’t be part of today’s activities.
The recovery attempt will be what most watchers are focused on today, but this mission has 30 total satellite payloads, and will carry a 3D-printed gnome from Valve’s Gabe Newell, which is a tech demo for new manufacturing techniques with potential space-based applications.
As a bonus, Rocket Lab is also donating $1 for every viewer of their live-stream feed above to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at New Zealand’s Starship Foundation, so just by watching a really cool rocket launch, you’ll also be doing good in the world. That’s at 8:44 PM EST (5:44 PM PST) via the embedded YouTube stream at the top of this post, and they’ll kick off live coverage at around 8:14 PM EST (5:14 PM PST).