Rocket Lab aims to catch Electron rocket booster mid-air with a helicopter next year

Fresh on the heels of Rocket Lab’s third successful booster recovery, CEO Peter Beck said the next step will be attempting to catch the booster mid-air using a helicopter, likely within the first half of next year.

Rocket Lab recovered the first stage of its Electron launcher during an ocean splashdown last week, after the rocket delivered two BlackSky geospatial imaging satellites to low Earth orbit. The company stationed a helicopter near the splashdown area during that mission, but only for reconnaissance purposes. The ultimate goal for the company’s reusability program has always been to actually recover the booster in mid-air, and now it’s nearly upon them.

The main work to be done between now and then is helicopter readiness, Beck said during a call with reporters Tuesday. The aircraft that will be used for the mid-air catch attempt will be significantly heavier, and will have a significantly heavier payload capacity, than the one that was present at last week’s launch (the first stage weighs around 980 kilos).

“The other part of it is slotting that flight and with a very, very busy manifest,” he said. “A priority is always making sure we deliver our customers on time. So that’s the next thing, but we certainly hope to have that flight within the first half of next year or as soon as practically possible, really.”

The company is planning a number of commercial flights between now and the mid-air recovery attempt, but these will be non-recovery missions. The next big learning opportunity for Rocket Lab will be once it is able to catch the booster and return it dry to the factory, Beck added.

Looking to next year, Beck said he foresees a busy year for the company, in part as a response to the ongoing coronavirus restrictions in New Zealand that have restricted Rocket Lab’s launch cadence throughout this year. While he didn’t speculate on how many launches the company might complete next year, he said he anticipated 2022 being the busiest year so far for the company.