Rocket Lab successfully completes its first operational Electron launch


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Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully completed its first operational launch, the third Electron rocket launch attempt (two of which succeeded) and the second successful launch this year.

You can see a replay of the launch here. The payload was six smallsats and a “drag sail” designed to test technology for deorbiting satellites more efficiently.

They plan to follow with another launch in a month.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race remained unchanged:

31 China
17 SpaceX
10 Russia
8 ULA
8 Europe (Arianespace)

China continues to lead in the national rankings. Last year I initially counted Rocket Lab as an American company, but was convinced by others that it was better labeled as New Zealand, since the rocket was assembled and launched there, using a local team. I now have decided this is a mistake. The rocket is essentially American-made, and the company that markets it is American-based. It also plans to add an American launch site at Wallops Island. This is a tough call, but I have decided to change Rocket Lab back in my listings as an American launch company. This means China now leads the U.S. 31 to 28.

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20 comments

  • Kirk

    Does Rocket Lab require a US launch license for its NZ launches?

  • Peter Francis

    Looking at the Rocket Lab control room on the video; in spite of Bob’s reclassification of Rocket Lab, one would could think that they are the space version of the All Blacks.

  • wayne

    “The Corporal Story”
    JPL Gag reel (silent)
    https://youtu.be/usT_Psp_6ew
    10:27

  • I see Rocket Lab as a joint USA/NZ rocket company. BTW, they do have a launch license from the FAA. Glad to see them back to flying. Now maybe I can get a flight.

  • Wikipedia describes the company as American with ‘ a wholly-owned New Zealand subsidiary.’ And the US flag is featured on company merchandise (socks?).

    Peter Francis has a point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the shirts were based on the rugby team’s. It also appears some of the folks at RL mission control spend time in the gym.

  • wayne

    totally (absolutely!) tangential….

    The grocery delivery people “Shipt,” have a really cool Corporate graphic:

    https://www.harbert.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/shipt_banner_0916151-e1491846475438.png

  • fred k

    Here’s an idea:

    For the purposes of national tabulation, just use the geographic launch site. So Rocket lab would be NZ (at least this year).

    It’s great to see that commercial launches are so clearly a distinct item now (as compared with government derived or subsidized efforts). Rocket lab is probably the most commercially funded rocket yet.

    It would be interesting to write about the evolution of COMMERCIAL rockets. Ariane, JAXA, ULA and such provided commercial services to some extent, but clearly had overwhelmingly large government subsidies. SpaceX has enjoys a large component of government business, in addition to it’s large commercial customer base and it’s commercial capital funding. Rocket lab appears to be 100% commercial.

  • wayne

    Why The Electron Rocket May Be Cheapest Way To Get To Space
    Scott Manley January 2018
    https://youtu.be/U5k1mlu6A7I
    5:55

  • Edward

    fred k,
    You suggested: “For the purposes of national tabulation, just use the geographic launch site.

    Would this mean that the Arianespace launches from South America should no longer be European launches?

    Also, do you consider a launch company, such as Rocket Lab, to be less of a commercial company if it launches government payloads?

  • Andrew_W

    Edward, French Guiana is just as much part of France as Paris is.

  • @Edward: I had the same thought, but French Guiana is a department of France and considered to be a French region. My impression is it’s something like the US Virgin Islands: geographically separate, but administratively and politically part of the mother country.

  • fred k

    Edward says:
    > Would this mean that the Arianespace launches from South America should no longer be European launches?

    Good point. French Guiana is actually France, but clearly it isn’t geographically in Europe.

    Also, what about Falcon 1 launch from ‎Omelek Island? Or Soyuz launches from Kourou? It gets a bit confusing to tally things up.

    Edward says:
    > Also, do you consider a launch company, such as Rocket Lab, to be less of a commercial company if it launches government payloads?

    I think it is fair to say that there is a bit of a gray area between a firm that exclusively supplies a fully government designed and paid for item, and a company that makes lots of a general purpose widget and happens to sell a few the government. There certainly is a lot debate and fuss about it from the leader of Ariane.

    I do think it is an important distinction; I look at what SpaceX is intending to do, and I compare that with what ULA’s plans for the future …. Not all commercial companies are going to be like SpaceX, but I do think it is a general rule that fully commercial ventures are faster, better, cheaper — competition makes people and organizations produce better results.

    I’m excited to see multiple more-fully commercial firms building and flying orbital rockets.

  • Col Beausabre

    Actually, wouldn’t the comparison between Big Space (57 or 58) and Commercial Space (18 or 19) be more interesting?
    (I’m including Japan in Big Space and I think Rocket Lab has two launches)

    By the way, if you launched a Proton with an Electron second stage would the combined vehicle be a Hydrogen?

  • wayne

    Col Beausabre-
    Good stuff.

  • Col Beausabre: You are right. Rocket Lab actually only has two successful launches to orbit. Their first did not reach orbit. I will correct.

  • mkent

    Rocket Lab is an interesting case, particularly as it shows that commercial entities don’t always fit into the neat little boxes that governments usually do.

    Rocket Lab was founded in New Zealand by New Zealanders, and their current launch site and almost all of the initial work was done there. Since then, they’ve incorporated in the United States in order to have access to the substantial sums of money that the U. S. government throws at space launch projects.

    Currently, Rocket Labs makes the engines and avionics in the United States and the tanks and stage structure in New Zealand. It plans to open a second launch pad and integration facility, this one in the United States. Final assembly of the New Zealand launched rockets will occur in New Zealand, and final assembly of the United States launched rockets will occur in the United States.

    They started in New Zealand, so I still credit their efforts to that country, but they are moving towards almost a 50-50 split. Hence the suggestion by someone else above to count the launches from New Zealand for New Zealand and the launches from the U. S. for America. That’s a different circumstance than, say, Russia launching from Kazakhstan or South America.

    By the way, if you launched a Proton with an Electron second stage would the combined vehicle be a Hydrogen?

    boo, hiss! :-)

  • mkent: All points well taken. I remain open to changing my mind again.

  • mkent

    Also, do you consider a launch company, such as Rocket Lab, to be less of a commercial company if it launches government payloads?

    No. I consider any company seeking profit by launching payloads into space to be a commercial launch company. So that includes SpaceX, ULA, Rocket Lab, and others. I don’t really consider ArianeSpace in that group, as they’ve never tried to make a profit. They intentionally lose $100 million every year to be made up by the European governments, so they’re as commercial as the post office.

    A higher tier of commercial space companies includes the ones that use their own money to develop their launch vehicles. That includes SpaceX (Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, but not Dragon), Rocket Lab (Electron), and ULA (Delta III, Delta IV Medium, and half-so for Atlas V, but not Delta II or Delta IV Heavy). It does not include ArianeSpace or the Russians, Chinese, Indians, or Japanese.

    Sadly, the market seems to have regressed a bit in this regard with the government funding of Vulcan, New Glenn, and Omega.

  • wodun

    Maybe instead of arguing what country Rocket Lab belongs to, a better category is multinational? It is kind of unique right now but as the global space industry progresses, isn’t it something we want/expect to see more of?

    Europe might be considered multinational but perhaps a distinction could be made for government vs commercial.

  • Edward

    fred k,
    Good thoughts.

    competition makes people and organizations produce better results.

    Ever so true.

    mkent wrote: “Rocket Lab is an interesting case, particularly as it shows that commercial entities don’t always fit into the neat little boxes that governments usually do.

    The topic of nationality gets complicated pretty quickly. It is also why the question of FAA licensing comes up, because that is a strong indicator that the U.S. considers it as being her responsibility.

    mkent,
    You wrote: “A higher tier of commercial space companies includes the ones that use their own money to develop their launch vehicles. That includes SpaceX (Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, but not Dragon) …

    I once spent a lot of time arguing with someone in which it turned out that we disagreed with the definition of “commercial.” I agree with your definition, that the commercial company must be responsible for the development and the government customer merely uses the product that the company designed to their own requirements and used their own funds (either existing or raised from outside (capitalist) sources). I, too, consider that Falcon 9 was the former, as it was nearing completion of development when NASA first signed a contract to use it, but Dragon had funding milestones and was largely designed with NASA’s requirements in mind under NASA’s closely watching eye. Fortunately, in time, Dragon could be used to supply commercial space stations.

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