NASA will ride share on the upcoming Rocket Lab mission

New Zealand-based Rocket Lab's upcoming "Baby Come Back" mission will deploy satellites before testing its ocean recovery of Electron first-stage.
Christopher McFadden
Rocket Lab's rocket's will be recovered from the ocean.

Rocket Lab/Twitter 

Rocket Lab, a New Zealand space tech company developing its recoverable rockets, is gearing up for its next launch to deploy satellites into orbit for NASA and private clients. The mission, dubbed "Baby Come Back," will also be used as a test case for the company's water recovery for one of its Electron rocket's first-stage boosters. The mission was scheduled for today, but judging by the company's Twitter feed (and NASA's), it has now been delayed a few days until the 16th of the month.

"Baby Come Back"

When it finally blasts off, Space News reports, the rocket (and payload) will launch from Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. The rocket will launch Telesat's LEO 3 spacecraft, a technology demonstrator for its upcoming "Lightspeed" constellation, along with two Spire cubesats and NASA's four-cubesat Starling mission to test technologies for future "swarm" missions.

Once launched, the Electron's first stage will splash down and be recovered by a ship using minor design changes after the company abandoned plans for mid-air recovery earlier this year. “There are some internal vehicle changes to improve its ability to keep water out of the areas where we don’t want it,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, in an interview. “We’ve taken this next opportunity to improve the water-tightness of the vehicle," he added.

To this end, the company is now using a two-point lifting method to recover the stage out of the water and onto a ship, which was not a priority when the company was focused on helicopter recovery. This method simplifies the recovery process and reduces the risk of damaging the stage. Rocket Lab has also replaced the stage parachute with a lighter version. “We built a parachute optimized for aerocapture. Now that we don’t have to do that, we can take the opportunity to optimize the parachute for splashdown recovery,” Beck said.

The company plans to refly a single Rutherford engine on an Electron later this year. The approach to reusability is systematic, with incremental steps taken to get closer to full reuse. The company also plans to learn from this mission and tweak the next one. They are taking a step-by-step approach to get it right.


While it is clear that Rocket Lab has a timeline for reusing an Electron booster, CEO Beck has yet to disclose it publicly. However, he has said reusability was important for the company's economics but not urgent. The company wants to increase launch activity without scaling up its factory. “From a production standpoint, the factory can keep up,” he said. “It’s not an existential requirement that we have to have it, hence why we’re being pretty methodical about it.”

However, even after showcasing reusability, the company may not be able to recover or reuse equipment due to certain performance criteria for some missions. “The very nature of the missions that Electron gets requested to do means that we’ll never have full reusability,” Beck added.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board