The head of California-based launch provider Rocket Lab said November 23 that its first attempt to recover an Electron rocket stage had been a complete success.
During a press conference, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said that the recovery attempt completed following the launch of the company’s Return to Sender mission had been successful.
“The test was a complete success, maybe even more than we had imagined,” said Beck.
The Return to Sender mission was launched from Rocket Lab’s Māhia facility in New Zealand at 15:20 UTC on November 20. Following first stage separation, the spent stage reoriented itself for the trip back to Earth.
During reentry, the upgraded Electron first stage controlled heating to ensure it survived the extreme conditions. Once through the atmosphere, the recovery system slowed it down from Mach 2 to nine-metres/second, a full one-metre/second slower than Rocket Lab had expected.
After splashing down in the Pacific Ocean approximately 400 kilometers downrange of the launch site, the stage encountered a five-metre swell that hampered recovery efforts. According to Beck, the Electron first stage did not make it through the experience unscathed.
“The stage survived coming back from space, but took quite the beating in the [ocean]”
The recovered Electron first stage will now be taken apart in order to examine how each element of the stage stacked up to the rigors of reentry. Beck said that parts from the stage would be requalified for flight and potentially flown on upcoming missions as a first step towards reusing an entire stage.
In addition to being a demonstration mission for the company’s new recovery system, the Return to Sender mission carried 29 satellites into orbit along with an unusual mass simulator, a 150-millimetre 3D printed titanium garden gnome manufactured by New Zealand-based special effects and prop company Weta Workshop.
Dubbed Gnome Chompski, the gnome served as an opportunity for Rocket Lab to test and qualify novel 3D printing techniques that could be used to produce future spacecraft components. It was also part of a fundraising push for Starship Children’s Hospital in New Zealand that raised more than $300,000.