Rocket Lab launched and recovered a rocket mid-air in a world first

But then the helicopter dropped the rocket into the sea.
Brad Bergan
The first stage and parachute caught mid-air (left), and the Electron rocket launching (right).1, 2  

It's happened. It's possible.

Rocket Lab, a private aerospace firm, launched a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from Launch Complex 1A on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, at roughly 6:48 PM EDT — lofting 34 picosatellites and cubesats into orbit, according to the firm's official YouTube channel.

But the main event was yet to come. Less than 30 minutes after launch, the rocket's first stage was actually caught mid-air by a flying helicopter.

You read that right.

But, a few seconds after recovering the rocket, the helicopter pilot opted to release the rocket — which plummeted into the deep blue ocean, where it was picked up by a ship — after they noticed "different load characteristics" than were expected from tests, according to Rocket Labs' Senior Communications Adviser Murielle Baker, in a tweet from Reuters' Joey Roulette.

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket is designed for re-entry

After its ascent, the Electron booster should arc into its highest position (apogee) along its ballistic trajectory. At this point, it will engage its cold gas thrusters to achieve an optimal orientation for re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

But to survive, the Electron booster requires a heat shield — to protect its nine primary engines from the deadly temperatures of re-entry, which can climb to 4,350 degrees Fahrenheit (2,400 degrees Celsius).

Rocket Lab's first stage is successfully caught mid-air, then dropped into the sea, by a helicopter

Rocket Lab's first stage rocket deployed its "drogue parachute" at roughly 6:59 PM EDT, just after the second stage's Rutherford engine was shut down. "Several critical milestones must be achieved" before the first stage could be caught by a helicopter.

The pilot of the helicopter was moving into position at roughly 7:04 PM EDT. Everyone was holding their breath in mission control, according to the live broadcast. "We're all on the edge of our seats here," said a Rocket Lab official.

At roughly 7:06 PM EDT, the helicopter pilot reported that they could see the rocket, and had captured the rocket's drogue chute line. This is real, it's happening. A flying helicopter successfully caught a first-stage booster rocket, in mid-air. But, tragically, the helicopter pilot released the payload (the first-stage rocket) after a few seconds, citing "different load characteristics" than previous tests had suggested, according to a tweet. This may not have been a full recovery and reuse of the rocket, but Rocket Lab has just taken us a major step closer to comparatively cheap ways of recycling used booster engines.

Once the method is perfected, commercial space travel will begin a bright, new phase of the second space race.

This was breaking news and was regularly updated as new information became available.

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