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Rocket Lab Targets August Return to Flight After Launch Failure

By | July 31, 2020

The Electron rocket for Rocket Lab’s “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” mission before launch. The mission failed after stage separation. Photo: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab is preparing for return to flight in August after its July 4 mission failed, losing payloads for customers Canon Electronics Inc., Planet, and In-Space. The smallsat launcher announced Friday that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has cleared a return to flight after an investigation. 

Rocket Lab narrowed down the issue to a single anomalous electrical connection. The company said the connection was intermittently secure through flight, creating increasing resistance that caused heating and thermal expansion in the electrical component. This caused the surrounding potting compounds to liquify, leading to the disconnection of the electrical system and subsequent engine shutdown. 

The issue was not detected before flight as the electrical connection remained secure during standard environmental acceptance testing. 

CEO Peter Beck explained in a media briefing on Friday that the Rocket Lab team has been able to reliably replicate the issue and mitigate it through a slight change in production processes. In addition, Rocket Lab has created a test and been screening for the issue in current vehicles in stock through in-depth testing and procedures. 

“We’ve built over 720 of these components, and this is the only one that has shown any anomalous behavior,” Beck said. 

Beck said Rocket Lab will share more about the investigation with its customers, but he did not share information about potential re-flights, due to commercially sensitive contractual arrangements. Customer In-Space previously told Via Satellite that it did not have rebuild or relaunch insurance coverage with Rocket Lab, and In-Space will be responsible for the funds to rebuild. 

Overall, Beck said the pause after this failure puts Rocket Lab about four weeks behind the once-a-month launch cadence it had planned for the rest of the year after its New Zealand spaceport was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Rocket Lab is also preparing for a first flight out of Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia. 

Beck said Rocket Lab has not lost any customers because of the failure, and Electron, which has had 12 successful launches, will be even more reliable moving forward. 

“We’ve been tremendously grateful for our customers, they’ve supported us all the way through. They understand that this is the launch industry and unfortunately these things do happen,” he said. “The reality is, that anybody who flies on Electron now is going to be flying on a more reliable vehicle than they did before we went through this anomaly. Not just this anomaly, but we did a whole assessment of the vehicle all the way through.”