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Rocket Lab to refly a recovered first stage

Electron 1st stage floating in the water

Rocket Lab today announced that a first stage used on a launch in January and recovered successfully from the ocean, as shown to the right, has now been moved into its normal production line for preparation for a reflight on an upcoming launch.

The stage was successfully launched and recovered as part of the ‘Four of a Kind’ mission on 31 January 2024 and has already passed more acceptance tests than any other recovered Electron stage, including:

  • Tank pressurization test – a process that filled the carbon composite tank with inert gas and held it in excess of maximum operating pressure for more than 20x longer than the standard Electron flight duration
  • Helium leak check – a stringent process that determines there are no leaks in the tank
  • Carbon fiber structural testing – including ultrasonic assessment and other non-destructive tests to confirm no delamination of the carbon composite tank fibers.

The stage will now undergo final fit out and rigorous qualification and acceptance testing to the same standard as a brand-new Electron tank to determine the recovered stage’s suitability for reflight.

No actual launch date has been set. The company first wants to complete its final testing. If successful and the stage flies again, Rocket Lab will join a very elite club, becoming only the second entity anywhere — after SpaceX capable of reusing a significant part of its rockets. That capability will allow it to drop prices, and better compete.

This success also underlines the lack of creativity from more than a half century of managers and rocket engineers, who repeatedly insisted such reuse was impractical, or impossible. The idea of recovering a stage from the ocean and reusing it was considered crazy, so no one ever tried it. Rocket Lab is about to prove more than a half century of managers and rocket engineers wrong.

Hat tip to BtB’s stringer Jay.

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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One comment

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Rocket Lab will join a very elite club, becoming only the second entity anywhere — after SpaceX capable of reusing a significant part of its rockets.

    This would be reusing a significant part of its orbital rocket, a very productive type of rocket. Suborbital rockets have been reused since the 1940s, at least, with the Air Force’s X series of rocket powered test planes, a very informative type of rocket.

    Either way, Rocket Lab and SpaceX are showing us that the impossible can be done. Hopefully, Blue Origin will get back on pace to once again show us other impossibilities that can be done. They were, after all, the first to land and not splash a booster for reuse.

    The short amount of time, two and a half months, suggests to me that they have very few refurbishments to do to the rocket for reuse. This can make for a very inexpensive reusable rocket.

    From the article:

    All previously recovered boosters have undergone extensive analysis to inform an iterative development process to make Electron reusable, but this is the first time a tank has been moved back onto the standard production line in preparation for reflight.

    It sounds as though this is only the basic structure (“fuselage”) but not the engines that are reused for this future flight. My recollection is that they were able to reuse one of their engines recovered from an even earlier flight.

    If this stage successfully passes and is accepted for flight, we’ll consider opportunities for reflying it in the new year.

    Sounds like next year.

    Hooray for Rocket Lab, that their rocket has not suffered any obvious harm from the ocean water. If the qualification testing (re-qualification?) works out then they did good design work. If not, they will learn again where to do better, because they obviously are not too far off the mark.

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