Citing coronavirus concerns, Rocket Lab pauses launch operations

This aerial view of Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand earlier this year shows an Electron rocket on one launch pad, and the site’s second launch pad under construction. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab says it has paused launch operations after the government of New Zealand this week ordered most businesses closed and urged people to stay at home in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The company, which is headquartered in Southern California and launches rockets from New Zealand, said Tuesday that it has paused launch preparations for its next mission, which was previously scheduled for liftoff March 30.

Officials made the decision “to protect the health and safety of Rocket Lab team members, our families, and the wider community” amid the coronavirus pandemic, the company said in a statement.

The government of New Zealand announced Monday that the country’s response to the threat from the COVID-19 viral disease would be elevated to “Level 4,” which requires most businesses to close and people to stay at home. The order will be in place for at least four weeks, the government said.

“We commend the government for taking this drastic but necessary step to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Rocket Lab said.

New Zealand is one of numerous countries to implement such measures in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus. As of Thursday, the country’s health ministry reported 338 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19.

The next mission of Rocket Lab’s Electron small satellite launcher is slated to carry five small satellites into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office, NASA and the University of New South Wales in Australia. The mission will mark the 12th flight of an Electron rocket since its debut in 2017.

Rocket Lab named the mission “Don’t Stop Me Now,” in honor of a company board member and avid band of the rock group Queen who recently died.

“We have the full support of our customers in pausing operations and we are grateful for their understanding in these challenging times,” Rocket Lab said in a statement. “We are working with the government, health officials, and our customers to determine when launch operations can resume.”

Rocket Lab’s primary launch site is located on Mahia Peninsula, a region on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The commercial space company developed a privately-owned spaceport at the site, which is home to one operational launch pad and another under construction.

Made of carbon composite materials, the two-stage Electron rocket stands around 55 feet (17 meters) tall. It’s design to loft light payloads into orbit, such as microsatellites and CubeSats.

“The launch vehicle and ground systems will remain in a state of readiness for launch as the evolving situation allows it,” Rocket Lab said. “The majority of our team is working from home with the exception of a few essential personnel who are monitoring and maintaining critical systems.”

The mission patch for Rocket Lab’s next launch, which has been named “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab says it will be ready to rapidly resume launch operations once government officials give the all-clear.

“In the days, weeks, and months to come, we’ll be following the advice of the government and health authorities to protect our teams in the United States and New Zealand,” the company said.

“In recent years, we have placed an increased emphasis on delivering responsive launch capability for our customers, which means having launch vehicles and pads ready for rapid call-up launch capability,” Rocket Lab said. “As a result of this approach, we’re fortunate to have enough launch vehicles ready that we can effectively manage a pause in production and still have vehicles available for launch as soon as conditions allow.”

In an interview earlier with Spaceflight Now earlier this month, Rocket Lab’s chief executive said the company’s factory in Auckland was regularly producing rockets. At the company’s headquarters in Long Beach, California, engineers manufacture kerosene-fueled rocket engines, avionics components and Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft platforms, which are designed to host small payloads and space instruments for customers.

But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a factory full of rockets here, so we’re not production constrained,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO. “We just need to get out in front of the launch cadence so every 30 days, there’s a vehicle rolling off the production line.”

Rocket Lab is pursuing several efforts to ramp up its launch cadence, including the construction of new launch pads at the company’s spaceport in New Zealand and at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Rocket Lab expected to launch its first mission from U.S. soil some time before the end of June from Wallops Island, Virginia. Launch Complex 1B, the new pad in New Zealand, was on track to be operational before the end of this year.

“At the end of the year, we’ll be in a position to have three rockets sitting on three pads, and you can only imagine the kind of scenarios that could be addressed with that kind of launch flexibility,” Beck said.

The other initiative undertaken by Rocket Lab to increase its Electron launch rate is a plan to retrieve the rocket’s first stage boosters with a helicopter. Once recovered, the stages could be refurbished and reused, easing strain on factories, according to Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab performed guided re-entry experiments on the first stage during the company’s two most recent launches, demonstrating the booster could survive a plunge back through the atmosphere after releasing the Electron’s second stage and satellite payloads to continue into orbit.

Beck said Rocket Lab will forego additional guided re-entry experiments on its near-term launches, while engineers focus on an upgrade to add a parachute to the first stage for missions later this year.

“We’ve really learned all we needed to learn,” Beck said in a recent interview. “The stage performed perfectly (on the re-entry experiments), it guided itself all the way through the re-entry corridor and impacted in the ocean. We got data all the way to impact, and that was great.”

The next step will the addition of a parachute to slow the descent of returning Rocket Lab boosters.

“There’s a flurry of experiments and block upgrades occurring right now for the next series of testing,” Beck said. “There will be some catch testing shortly, and also the next big milestone for recovery is actually putting on some chutes and splashing down in the ocean. That will occur later on this year.”

Beck said the first launch with a parachute is likely to be on Flight 17 or 18 of the Electron rocket. The next flight is Flight 12.

Rocket Lab is tackling the rocket recovery project in three ways, according to Beck.

“The first pillar — and it’s by far the hardest one — is can we make it through the atmosphere in one piece,” he said. “We’ve proven that we can do that successfully, not just once but a couple of times in a row. Then the next pillar is can we get it under a parachute and slow it to a descent rate where it doesn’t obliterate itself in the ocean when it impacts, which is another complicated thing, but nowhere near as complicated as getting it through the Earth’s atmosphere.

“And then the third pillar is can we successfully scoop something out of the sky with a helicopter,” Beck said.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.