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Griffin on Tech: Supersonic ballet, Kiwi style

Peter Griffin, Editor. 06 May 2022, 12:21 pm

I can't think of any other Kiwi company that regularly has me foregoing meetings so I can log onto a live stream to watch their latest product launch.

But that's where I found myself again on Tuesday, when Rocket Lab put another Electron rocket into space, delivering a cluster of 34 satellites into orbit in the process. That in itself isn't remarkable, Rocket Lab has now undertaken dozens of launches from the Mahia peninsula.

But this mission, dubbed There And Back Again in a nod to The Hobbit, was different. It brought to fruition founder Peter Beck's plan to realise his vision for reusable rockets by snatching the returning rocket booster section midair so it could be reused in a future mission.

This is what SpaceX and Elon Musk has already achieved in spectacular fashion for larger rockets such as the Falcon 9, which retains enough propellant to blast back down onto a floating landing platform for refurbishment and reuse. That is crucial to the SpaceX business model and also radically reduces waste from its operations.

Beck's efforts to do so for small rockets, which are currently recovered from the ocean, putting strain on the rocket and requiring a dedicated vessel to recover it, required a different approach. Hence the parachute that is deployed from the rocket falling back through the Earth's atmosphere and the dramatic helicopter manoeuvre to snatch the descending rocket with, as one Twitter observer commented, the equivalent of a bent coat hanger.

Screenshot 2022-05-06 at 9.52.03 AM.png

How to catch a falling rocket

The regular eruptions of applause indicated There and back again was progressing through its critical stages according to plan and before I could settle into my chair with my cup of tea, the rocket was already on its return to Earth. The danging grappling hook beneath the helicopter hovering over the cloud-shrouded Pacific ocean was a tantalizing hint of what was to come.

Then, abruptly, the rocket appeared, trailing below its parachute, and the skilled helicopter pilot went into action. The critical moment was captured by the camera mounted beneath the S-92 helicopter. We see the parachute and tow rope swinging into frame, then the connection is made accompanied by a huge cheer from the Rocket Lab team watching on watching on from mission control in Auckland.

It wasn't a complete success. As Peter Beck later explained on Twitter, the helicopter pilot soon after chose to jettison the rocket into the ocean.

Screenshot 2022-05-06 at 9.25.21 AM.png

But this was the first effort. Rocket Lab will now refine the process and figure out how to safely tow the rocket to land. How many rockets fell over or crashed down before Elon Musk perfected the reusable rocket technique?

The mission represents an important step forward for Rocket Lab and small rocket delivery in general. If rockets can be reliably reused, the economics of that industry get so much better.

The mission was notable also for another piece of kiwi innovation. One of the satellites launched into orbit was made by Auckland start-up Astrix Aeronautics, headed by Fia Jones. The company counts Peter Beck as an investor and its main point of difference is its inflatable solar panel technology, which unfurled as planned when the small satellite was in orbit. 

The inflatable array can power a satellite with 300 watts per kilogram. That removes the need for a mechanical array that weighs more and is more prone to failure. Astrix will now monitor the array's performance in space. Its technology could become the go-to choice to power small satellites launched from all over the world.

What a week for Kiwi aerospace innovation. Rocket Lab's adventure on the Nasdaq isn't going so well in comparison, with its shares down 44% this year, and around 33% since its listing last August. But inflation, rising interest rates, supply chain disruption and the war in Ukraine are putting pressure on markets in general. 

Beck, like Musk, clearly has an appetite for risk which investors are retreating from at the moment. But this is real innovation in action and its great it is happening on our doorstep. 


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David Lane 06 May 2022, 5:26 pm

Nah. Beck's alignment with US military contractors and selling out to US majority ownership, plus his deceit of the people of Māhia peninsula who gave him permission to use it *with strict conditions* that he's failed to meet, have made him and RocketLabs far less admirable. I hope others temper their enthusiasm according See There're also quite a few stories about the working culture being entirely unpleasant and unsustainable. Another example of rampant corporate greed without ethics in the tech world? Certainly smells that way.

Sasha Mrkailo 10 May 2022, 9:27 am
Sasha Mrkailo 10 May 2022, 9:33 am

Pretty exciting, despite the possible drawbacks in company culture, foreign ownership etc. No company is perfect. It is a bit like Musk, he is far away from perfect, but the things he is achieving with Tesla and SpaceX are changing the world, for better.

The approach with the helicopter reminds me a bit on Nasa's sky crane (see Mars landing) approach in reverse.

David Lane 11 May 2022, 4:59 pm

Sorry Sasha, I don't agree with that assessment. Inconsistency and incompetence in businesses happen and are understandable. We're talking about ethical lapses and betrayal of stakeholders. We can't allow that to 'slide' without strong criticism. I don't think Rocket Labs are particularly admirable, nor are they changing the world (or, more especially) NZ for the better. As with many corporations, their unethical behaviour makes the world worse and drags NZ down by its association.

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