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Rocket Lab launches a satellite reusing one rocket engine from previous flight

Rocket Lab not only successfully launched a satellite tonight (August 24 in New Zealand), its first stage used a rocket engine that had flown previously.

In addition, the first stage was designed to be reused, and was quickly recovered after it splashed down in the Pacific. The plan is to refly either this or another recovered first stage in one of the company’s upcoming launches in the coming months, making Rocket Lab the second private company in the world, after SpaceX, to reuse a first stage.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

57 SpaceX
36 China
12 Russia
7 Rocket Lab

In the national rankings, American private enterprise now leads China in successful launches 66 to 36. It also leads the entire world combined, 66 to 59. SpaceX by itself still trails the rest of the world (excluding American companies) 57 to 59 in successful launches.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 

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11 comments

  • Questioner

    Mr. Zimmerman, did Rocketlab really reuse just one of the nine Rutherford engines from the first stage of the Electron rocket, as your post suggests?

  • Questioner: Yes, according to its announcers during the podcast.

  • James Street

    Having grown up boating and water skiing on salt water and seeing how corrosive salt water is I wonder about the long term effects of fishing rockets out of the ocean. I liked their idea of snatching it out of the air as it parachuted. Either way it’s cheaper and less complex than SpaceX’s powered landings, but SpaceX’s plan is to also land on Mars.

  • GeorgeC

    Keeping your rockets out of the hands of competitors and being able to study reused components has to be worth a lot. I will love to follow the early Neutron launches and vertical landings.

  • pawn

    I was told by one of my moon rocket engineer buddies that NASA fished a couple rockets out of the ocean downrange from the Cape and the engines were a mess. Corrosion and mechanical shock. Decided it wasn’t worth it.

    Materials have probably improved and if you plan on reusing the engine I’m sure there a bunch of things you can do at the design and operational level to bump your rate of return.

  • sippin_bourbon

    I wonder how many rocket engines were fished out by non-US gov agencies in the past.

    I am not familiar with the Electron failure modes, but I am guessing 1 engine failure in flight could compensated by increasing thrust
    or duration of the burn on the other engines. This happened on an Apollo Launch (Apollo 13) and at least one STS launch, if I recall. So this seems like a legit, but still safe way to perform a real world test.

    Rocketlab is showing an incremental approach to re-usability, while still performing orbital launches.
    Blue Origin is claiming incremental development while not launching anything.

    At this rate, the question of who will launch first, Starship or New Glenn (will most certainly be Starship, barring major disaster), but Neutron or New Glenn. Not capacity is not the same of course. Different classes. But in terms of re-usable rockets, it looks like the race to the 2nd re-usable system is going to be close.

  • sippin bourbon

    Beck is reporting nominal performance of the re-used hardware.

    https://twitter.com/Peter_J_Beck/status/1694500990177993153

    He is indicated a plan to.go with all nine soon, making it a partially re-used rocket.

    All this makes me curious about the condition of the rocket body and fuel tanks. The engines have electric pumps. Are these replaced,or are they sealed and reused also.
    So many questions.

  • Edward

    James Street wrote: “Having grown up boating and water skiing on salt water and seeing how corrosive salt water is I wonder about the long term effects of fishing rockets out of the ocean.

    This is why I, and probably the rest of the aerospace community, are surprised and possibly shocked that this plan seems to be working.

    pawn,
    One difference is that Rocket Lab is soft-landing (soft-splashing?) their first stage by using parachutes. NASA probably didn’t use parachutes on those rockets. How Rocket Lab is avoiding corrosion issues is a mystery to me. The materials that can be used in an engine is limited, so finding suitable materials must be very difficult for them. Protective coatings may not last long under the heat and pressure environment of these engines. What a challenge this must be.

    Would you fly on an airliner whose engines has been soaked in sea water? Me neither. At the risk of sounding wrong or judgmental: flying a rocket engine that has soaked in sea water is insane, and absolutely, positively cannot be done. I’m sure that if I saw it happen, I still wouldn’t believe it.

    I wonder how many times they can recover it from the sea and still reuse it.

  • wayne

    tangentially related…

    Riding the Booster (Up & Down in 8 minutes)
    NASA (2012)
    https://youtu.be/527fb3-UZGo
    (8:31)

    Space shuttle launch from the booster’s perspective, includes parachute deployment and impact with the ocean at 96 mph.

  • pawn

    Edward,

    At one level, it’s all about the cost.

    RL obviously did a pioneer exercise with the one engine. They also probably tracked that engine very carefully a far as refurbishment and certification costs. Will it scale up to a level where it makes sense? Time will tell.

    I’m glad someone is actually doing this instead of talking about it. It requires a lot of co operation between the engineering, operations, and supply chain houses to do this properly and make a decision. It’s a sign of a serious player.

  • Edward

    pawn,
    Rocket Lab is yet another company that is doing the impossible. Perhaps another sign of a serious player.

    To be fair, I once built an assembly (three, of the same design) that went to space, brazed together by dipping it into molten sodium, a corrosive. Also to be fair, that assembly (one of the three we built) had a spot of corrosion develop that we then had to take corrective action to fix.

    You are correct, pawn, what matters most is the cost after refurbishment — the economy of the process. Another factor is the advantage of not having to spend time building another engine or rocket body but having them ready to go shortly after recovery. Having a fleet of reusable boosters is one of the reasons that SpaceX is able to fly at such a rapid cadence, and why Rocket Lab thinks it can eventually fly at a rapid cadence, too. It is another factor in the economy of the process.

    I think we are in complete agreement that Rocket Lab is a serious contender. I think they have found one niche in the economy and with Neutron are seeking a second niche.

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