Rocket Lab catches and drops rocket booster with helicopter in key reuse test


The small launch company Rocket Lab USA Inc. captured a rocket stage falling through the air with a helicopter before dropping it into the ocean, appearing to carry out a partially successful test of the new cost-cutting approach of the company to recover used rockets for several space missions.

The demonstration, involving parachutes and a long cable suspended from a helicopter, was aimed at hitting a key milestone for the Long Beach, Calif.-based company as it ventures to lower the cost of sending things into space, an industry trend started by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

In this image provided by Rocket Lab, the Electron rocket lifts off on its “Out and Back” mission from its launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula on Tuesday. (Rocket Lab/Associated Press)

After lifting off to send 34 satellites into orbit at 10:50 a.m. Tuesday (6:50 p.m. ET Monday) in New Zealand, the company’s four-stage Electron booster stage fell back into Earth’s atmosphere and deployed a series of parachutes to curb its speed.

High above the South Pacific just off the New Zealand coast, a helicopter suspended from a long vertical cable from below was steered by two pilots above the thruster, which had stretched a line to the side of capture as it descended under a parachute at about 35 kilometers per hour.

The helicopter’s cable locked onto the booster’s capture line, as seen on the company’s live stream, drawing cheers and applause from Rocket Lab engineers in the control center of the company’s mission in Long Beach.

But engineers’ cheers turned to audible groans as helicopter pilots were forced to free the rocket from the cable and plunge it into the Pacific Ocean after noticing “different loading characteristics” from what had been experienced in previous capture tests, a Rocket Lab spokesperson later confirmed.

A fully successful test would have involved bringing the rocket booster back to land or a barge without it touching ocean water.

“It’s okay,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck wrote on Twitter. “The rocket has safely crashed and the ship is loading it.”

It was not immediately clear if Rocket Lab planned to reuse the booster.