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Rocket Lab launch
A Rocket Lab Electron rocket lifts off Saturday on its ill-fated launch. (credit: Rocket Lab webcast)

It’s (small) rocket science, after all

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Maybe companies should think twice about launching on US holidays.

To be fair, it was the morning of Sunday, July 5, in New Zealand when an Electron rocket lifted off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 there. However, back in the United States, where Rocket Lab is headquartered, it was still the afternoon of July 4 when the Electron lifted off on a launch licensed by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

“Today’s anomaly is a reminder that space launch can be unforgiving, but we will identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible,” Beck said.

The launch, delayed a day by weather, appeared to go well initially. But, about five minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff, roughly three minutes after the rocket’s second stage started its burn, onboard video from the rocket froze. That alone would not be an issue, but telemetry from the launch displayed on the webcast screen showed that the rocket’s velocity stalling out at about 13,700 kilometers per hour. Half a minute later, the speed started to increase again—but only as the rocket’s altitude of nearly 195 kilometers started to decrease. “Initiating mishap response plan,” a controller says around that time.

Five minutes later, Rocket Lab ended the webcast without confirming that the rocket had reached orbit, which it should have by that point. Instead, a short time later it announced what many had suspected: the launch had failed, its payload of seven smallsats lost.

In a statement, the company said an “issue occurred approximately four minutes into the flight” that caused the failure. The company didn’t elaborate on the failure, but whatever the issue was, it was not readily apparent even to controllers during the flight. “Stage two propulsion is nominal,” one launch controller said about five minutes after liftoff. “Performance is nominal,” another says a half-minute later.

Whatever the issue, the failure was surprising because Electron had emerged as the leader in the small launch vehicle market. Before this failure the rocket had carried out 11 consecutive successful launches dating back to its second launch in early 2018. Its first launch, in May 2017, failed to reach orbit, but that problem turned out to be caused by a misconfiguration in ground equipment used in the range safety system, rather than an issue with the rocket itself.

“Today’s anomaly is a reminder that space launch can be unforgiving, but we will identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible,” Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, said in the statement announcing the launch failure. “We’re working together as a team to comb through the data, learn from today, and prepare for our next mission.”

The failure had varying implications for the launch’s customers. The primary payload on the launch was a 67-kilogram smallsat called CE-SAT-1B, developed by Canon Electronics to test technologies for future remote sensing satellites. The launch was contracted by Spaceflight, a company that arranges rides for smallsats on a wide range of rockets as either primary or rideshare payloads.

“We are of course disappointed, while at the same time are always aware that launch failures are part of the business of space,” Spaceflight said in a statement after the failure. “Our hearts go out to all the teams who worked so hard on this mission. We know their hard work will result in future successful launches.”

Planet, the company that operates the largest fleet of remote sensing satellites, had five of its SuperDove cubesats on the launch. It largely shrugged off the failure, noting that it has more of those satellites prepared for launches in the coming months. “While it’s never the outcome that we hope for, the risk of launch failure is one Planet is always prepared for,” the company said in a statement, one that reflects the experience it’s had losing satellites on other launch failures.

The seventh satellite on the launch was Faraday-1, the first satellite by a British startup, In-Space Missions. Faraday-1 was a 6U cubesat that hosted several payloads, such as one from Airbus Defence and Space to test a software reprogrammable radio. It felt the failure far worse than the other, more experienced companies on the launch.

“When we heard that the launch vehicle failed four minutes into the flight, we were all absolutely gutted,” Doug Liddle, CEO of In-Space Missions, said in a statement. “Many of our team have been involved in previous space missions, so we’re fully aware of the fragile nature of launches. However, this knowledge and experience doesn’t make this failed mission any easier to accept.”

Rocket Lab launch
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne ignites its main engine seconds after release from its “Cosmic Girl” aircraft. The engine, however, shut down seconds later, ending the mission. (credit: Virgin Orbit)

Other struggles and setbacks

Rocket Lab, at the time of the failure, appeared to be hitting on all cylinders. The company was not only ramping up its launch activity—this launch took place just three weeks after the previous Electron launch—but launch site activity as well, including building a second pad in New Zealand and finalizing Launch Complex 2 on Wallops Island, Virginia, which was to host a first Electron launch later this summer. The company was also making progress on recovering and eventually reusing the Electron first stages, an effort driven primarily to meet higher launch rates. Last month, it won an NRO contract for a pair of launches next year from New Zealand intended to demonstrate responsive launch, with the possibility of the two taking place just days apart.

“That moment of ignition of the NewtonThree, I would say, is the key moment in this flight,” Pomerantz said of the LauncherOne test flight.

An investigation into the failure, and corrective actions, may take several months for Rocket Lab to implement. That would appear to provide an opening for other small launch vehicle ventures, but they, too, have had their issues.

Virgin Orbit, which has been working its LauncherOne air-launch vehicle for several years, finally was ready for its first orbital launch attempt in May. Development and testing of the vehicle had been slowed by various technical issues and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the company to revise its operations procedures to incorporate social distancing and other precautions.

Before the launch, the company set expectations accordingly. “With the first launch of a system, success is gauged incrementally as you operate the system, and that’s the way we will be viewing it,” Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, said in a media briefing before the launch. “The more data we get, the more valuable the flight is.”

Company executives said they would be happy just to see the rocket ignite the NewtonThree engine that powers its first stage. “That moment of ignition of the NewtonThree, I would say, is the key moment in this flight,” company vice president Will Pomerantz said on that media call. “We’ll keep going as long as we can after that, potentially all the way to orbit, but we’re really excited about the data and about the moment of ignition and as far as we can get after that.” Because of that, the rocket carried only a demonstration payload that the company said would be quickly deorbited if it did make it to space.

On May 25—Memorial Day—Virgin Orbit’s modified 747 aircraft, “Cosmic Girl,” took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California with a LauncherOne rocket attached to its left wing. Nearly an hour later, the plane reached the drop zone off the California coast and released LauncherOne. Several seconds after release, the NewtonThree ignited.

“For about nine seconds after drop, the flight went perfectly. Through some of the most challenging portions of our flight—release, the controlled drop, the rocket’s ignition sequence, and the initial portion of guided, powered flight—every part of our system did exactly as we designed it to do,” the company said in a statement two days after the flight.

The problem was that it was only nine seconds. “About nine seconds after drop, something malfunctioned, causing the booster stage engine to extinguish, which in turn ended the mission,” Virgin Orbit said. It didn’t elaborate on the problem in that statement, and hasn’t provided additional updates about the investigation, but the company said it was optimistic that it had enough data from the flight to track down and correct the problem.

Hart, in an interview hours after the flight, emphasized what the company had achieved. “What we did today is really demonstrated the challenging aspects of air launch,” he said. “Even though it was not as long a flight as we’d liked, we did burn down quite a lot of the risks associated with flying, and learned a lot about how the vehicle behaves.”

Another competitor to Rocket Lab is Astra, which came close to launching its Rocket 3.0 vehicle in March in the final day of the DARPA Launch Challenge (see “Responsive launch is still not quite ready for prime time”, The Space Review, March 9, 2020). While the company had to scrub its final launch attempt less than a minute before liftoff, the company vowed to try again, outside of the competition, within weeks.

“Success for this flight means we accomplish enough to make orbit within three flights, which we have defined as at least achieving a nominal first stage burn,” Astra stated.

Instead, the company suffered a problem with the vehicle during preparations later in March for that next attempt. The company said at the time that an “anomaly” during prelaunch testing had damaged the vehicle, although industry sources later said that the vehicle was destroyed, a claim supported by satellite images of the pad at Pacific Spaceport Complex - Alaska on Kodiak Island taken a short time later that revealed burn scars around the pad.

Astra is preparing another vehicle to launch from Kodiak later this summer. The company said last month it’s planning for a new launch campaign between July 20 and 25, although recent Coast Guard notices suggest the launch is now scheduled for between July 30 and August 7. It also emphasized this is a test flight that is part of a series of three. “Success for this flight means we accomplish enough to make orbit within three flights, which we have defined as at least achieving a nominal first stage burn,” the company stated.

Government support

There are many other small launch vehicle developers out there as well in various phases of development. Even the failures of some ventures, like Vector Space Systems (see “Revectoring the small launch vehicle industry”, The Space Review, August 26, 2019), have not deterred new entrants. By some estimates, more than 100 small launch vehicles are in development worldwide, far more than can be justified by even the most optimistic forecasts of smallsat demand.

While that surplus has led many to believe that a shakeout in the launch market is inevitable, the US government seems to be taking steps to prop up the industry. Both NASA and the Defense Department have announced recent initiatives to stimulate the industry, moves that have in some cases faced industry opposition.

Last week, NASA released a draft request for proposals (RFP) for a small launch vehicle program called Venture Class Launch Service (VCLS) Demonstration 2. NASA says it will award “multiple” contracts to companies for launches of clusters of cubesats either on dedicated missions or those where the cubesats are the primary payloads.

The RFP mentions two classes of missions being considered for VCLS Demo 2. One mission would be a dedicated launch of 30 kilograms of cubesats to a 500-kilometer orbit with an inclination of 40 to 60 degrees. The second would be a launch where two constellations of cubesats would be the primary payload: one, with 70 kilograms’ worth of cubesats, would be placed into a 550-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit, while the other, weighing 20 kilograms, would go into a similar orbit.

The draft RFP doesn’t mention a schedule for the program, beyond seeking vehicles capable of performing the missions by the end of June 2022. It also doesn’t disclose the proposed budget for it.

The program would build on the original VCLS program NASA started in 2015. At the time, it awarded contracts to three small launch vehicle developers, with a total value of $17.1 million. Of the three, only Rocket Lab has carried out its contracted launch, placing a set of NASA-supported cubesats into orbit in late 2018. Virgin Orbit, another VCLS winner, plans to carry out its mission shortly after a successful demonstration of LauncherOne. (The third winner, Firefly Space, went bankrupt in 2016 and lost its contract, although the company was revived under new ownership as Firefly Aerospace.)

The Defense Department announced in June its intent to award contracts to six small launch vehicle companies. Some of the companies were familiar—Astra, Rocket Lab, and VOX Space, the government service arm of Virgin Orbit—while others have either not announced a small launch vehicle program (Space Vector) or are startups in early phases of development (Aevum and X-Bow Launch Systems).

Last week, the Defense Department announced that, based on the feedback it received, it is “re-evaluating its strategy on how best to proceed with this action” and withdrew the contract announcement.

The announcement was curious, in that the Defense Department hadn’t announced a competition for the contracts, or explained why it picked those six companies from the much larger pool of eligible companies. The Pentagon said it was making use of the Defense Procurement Act, invoked by the government earlier this year in response to the pandemic to shore up the defense industrial base, to make the awards. Some DOD officials had recently cited the small launch vehicle industry as one particularly affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic, even though the Pentagon is not a major user—yet—of such vehicles.

Companies left out of the procurement complained privately, but also apparently to the Pentagon as well. Last week, the Defense Department announced that, based on the feedback it received, it is “re-evaluating its strategy on how best to proceed with this action” and withdrew the contract announcement, but offered no other insights into that strategy.

Certainly, for small launch vehicle companies to be successful, they will need contracts, from both government and commercial customers. But, what we’re also seeing is that the technical obstacles for those companies are likely to be just as high, if not higher, than the business ones, as seen by the struggles that even well-funded companies are experiencing. Government launch contracts don’t provide much help for companies that can’t successfully launch.

Small launch vehicle developers continue to press ahead. Rocket Lab has vowed to return to flight “as soon as possible,” as Beck put it, while Astra moves ahead with its launch plans and Virgin Orbit prepares to try again. Others, like Firefly Aerospace and Relativity Space, have plans to launch some time later this year or next year.

One suggestion for those companies, though: take Labor Day weekend off.

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