Rocket Lab Reusable Rocket Plans Must Succeed or SpaceX Ridesharing Will Kill Them

Rocket Lab, the global leader in dedicated small satellite launch, has revealed plans to recover and re-fly the first stage of its Electron launch vehicle. The move aims to enable Rocket Lab to further increase launch frequency by eliminating the need to build a new first stage for every mission.

Work on Rocket Lab’s Electron first stage reuse program began in late 2018, at the end of the company’s first year of orbital launches. The plan to reuse Electron’s first stage will be implemented in two phases. The first phase will see Rocket Lab attempt to recover a full Electron first stage from the ocean downrange of Launch Complex 1 and have it shipped back to Rocket Lab’s Production Complex for refurbishment. The second phase will see Electron’s first stage captured mid-air by helicopter, before the stage is transported back to Launch Complex 1 for refurbishment and relaunch. Rocket Lab plans to begin first stage recovery attempts in the coming year.

A major step towards Rocket Lab’s reusability plans was completed on the company’s most recent launch, the Make It Rain mission, which launched on 29 June from Launch Complex 1. The first stage on this mission carried critical instrumentation and experiments that provided data to inform future recovery efforts. The next Electron mission, scheduled for launch in August, will also carry recovery instrumentation.

Rocket Lab Founder and Chief Executive Peter Beck says reusing Electron’s first stage will enable Rocket Lab to further increase launch frequency by reducing production time spent building new stages from scratch.

Electron is a two-stage orbital expendable launch vehicle (with an optional third stage) developed by the American aerospace company Rocket Lab to cover the commercial small satellite launch segment (CubeSats). Its Rutherford engines, manufactured in California, are the first electric-pump-fed engine to power an orbital rocket.

They can launch 150-225 kilograms to SSO (Sun Synchronous Orbit) for about $6 million.

SpaceX just announced that they will rideshare 150 kilograms or smaller satellites to SSO for $2.25 million.

Rocket Labs will have to get launch costs to the $2-3 million range to survive.

Rocketlabs Joins SpaceX and Chinese Companies Working Towards Reuse

In Reusable rockets we appear to have:
First Mover – SpaceX
Fast Followers – Blue Origin and Chinese Long March, China startups, Rocket Labs
Late Entrant – Europe

China aims to recover the first stage of the Long March-8 carrier rocket, which is still under development and is expected to make its maiden flight around 2021, according to a Chinese rocket expert.

European Ariane is working on a reusable rocket engine called Prometheus and they created animation of the Themis reusable rocket design. The Themis project will build a multiple-engine first-stage rocket that launches vertically and lands near the launch site. The Prometheus engine is a reusable liquid oxygen and methane engine that may cost as little as $1 million to build. The Prometheus engine will have a thrust of 100 tons each which is similar to the SpaceX Merlin 1D engine. The goal are rockets that are ten times cheaper. The Themis reusable European rocket could be flying around 2028-2030 but still needs full funding.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is working towards reusable rockets and has had supersonic sub-orbital tests. Blue Origin has not launched any rocket to orbit despite starting before SpaceX. SpaceX has had about 75 successful launches delivering payloads to orbit for customers.

In May 2018, China startup i-Space said they would develop a reusable sub-orbital spaceplane for space tourism. Space Transportation is a launcher manufacturer which aims at developing reusable rockets for small payloads (100 – 1000 kg payload capacity on its Tian Xing – 1 rocket. China has a dozen rocket start-ups and almost all are aiming for the small payload range. Linkspace and iSpace started working on reusable rockets in 2014.

Space Transportation is looking at a gliding and a parachute system instead of SpaceX-style retropropulsive landing. SpaceX tried and failed to make parachutes work for stage recovery.

Chinese startups Space Transportation and LinkSpace are performing reusable rocket tests now. They are at the Advanced Grasshopper stage or the Blue Origin supersonic sub-orbital stage.

April 22, 2019, Space Transportation carried out a test April 22 in northwest China in cooperation with Xiamen University, launching a 3,700-kilogram technology demonstrator named Jiageng-1. The Jiageng-1 reaching a maximum altitude of 26.2 kilometers and a top speed of above 4,300 kilometers per hour. The rocket was recovered at a designated landing site.
SOURCES- Rocket Labs, SpaceX, LinkSpace, Blue Origin, iSpace

21 thoughts on “Rocket Lab Reusable Rocket Plans Must Succeed or SpaceX Ridesharing Will Kill Them”

  1. For sure. All this works well for China, for a while. Eventually, as corporations come more under the control of Central Castings I suppose the innovation and energy will dry up, particularly when other nations put up barriers.

  2. “Maybe at a tenth that price.”

    But with reuse they may actually get near $500k per launch which is actually very cheap compared to building satellites.

  3. It’s definitely make-or-break time, but if they can launch and catch their first stage (the helicopter sounds perfect since their rocket is small), and develop plans for a medium-lift launcher, then I think they’ll get funding from sources all over the world who want to be part of the space race. If I were looking for a space startup to throw money into Rocket Lab is the one to buy. They’re kinda facing the same odds as Tesla, Tesla is still burning through investment capital.

  4. “New Zealand and government subsidies . . .”
    Just to clarify, while Rocket Lab was a recipients of Research and Development funding through the Callaghan Innovation Growth Grants program as far as I’m aware it does not receive ongoing subsidies from the NZ government.

  5. Indeed, it’s significant that Rocket Lab’s nominal orbits are Sun Synchronous orbits (so the payload is in permanent sunlight), not somewhere that too many of SpaceX’s larger payloads are destined for.

  6. China is a quasi fascist state. The State will funnel whatever resources are necessary to its companies to allow them to catch up in key areas. I suspect the State will regard launch tech. as a key area.

  7. A dedicated small rocket has the huge advantage of directing the space load to the right trajectory, something that a big rocket with multiple load, can’t.

  8. I’ve wondered in the past if anyone looked into the feasibility of catching a hovering first stage at 20k ft with a sky crane. If it would save on the amount of propellant needed for landing, it would definitely speed up the trip back to base.

  9. The primary will not be an issue because SpaceX has announced that it will do launches dedicated to small sat ride-share on a monthly basis that will not wait for any of the shared rides. If a customer is not ready, it will have to wait till next month. The only advantage that Rocket Lab offers is being able to select the precise orbit, to launch into. Which is a big advantage that ride sharing does not offer.

  10. As I understood, the new ridesharing program that SpaceX just announced is small sats only. They are the primary payload, and will be launched on a regular schedule, so no more waiting. Not sure how the orbits are resolved, but I’d guess it isn’t worse than previous ridesharing arrangements.

  11. I’m sure there’s a market for small launchers, the problem is that, at $2.5M per small satellite, they’re still not down to the price point where the demand for small space applications will explode. Maybe at a tenth that price.

  12. Heck the us governent might give them money too… just because they like that they are developing dual use military tech … printable rockets… sounds like a good way to make smart missles..

  13. ummm… I thought the whole point of the electron rocket was to be cheap and fast because it’s 3d printed with minimal ports to assemble… funny that Elon can even beat them at that game…

  14. Satellites got smaller. A remote sensing satellite used to be the size of a car, a good one was the size of a bus. Today they are 3U cubesats — Planet Labs launched hundreds of them. There will never be enough of them to fill a bog rocket, so SpaceX will only launch them where the primary payload is going, and only when it is ready. Today there is enough value in small satellites to have their own ride, and Rocketlabs provides it.

  15. One can share a ride on a big rocket only with no choice of orbit. A small rocket will go into orbit of one’s choice. That is the competitive advantage of a small rocket, which does not change even if a shared launch is free. So Rocketlab will be fine regardless.

  16. Well put. I wasn’t aware of this.
    By the time China establishes a reusable rocket, SpaceX
    could have its next generation Starship ready.
    The pace of change with Europe and Boeing is quite

  17. They’re a cool company but I suspect they’ll go out of business regardless of what they do on reusability. There has never been much of a market for small launchers. Entrepreneurs tend to convince themselves there is based on favorable comments from potential buyers but they don’t turn into real orders. SpaceX killed Falcon 1 because of a lack of real orders. Virgin Orbit just had most of its orders canceled. SpaceX can cover this market as an afterthought.

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