Rocket Lab shares video of its historic mid-air helicopter booster capture

"A major step forward for our recovery program!"
Chris Young
Electron at launch (left) and just before recovery (left).1, 2

In a world-first, Rocket Lab launched and recovered one of its first stage Electron boosters mid-air for the first time.

The historic accomplishment marks the first time a rocket first stage was ever captured with a helicopter. It also makes Rocket Lab the second company after SpaceX to retrieve a booster for reuse.

The mission, called "There and Back Again" went almost completely according to plan, though the helicopter pilots did drop the booster into the sea shortly after capture as they weren't comfortable with the way the load handled in mid-air.

"Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet," Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a press statement.

Recovery accomplished

Rocket Lab's "There and Back Again" mission successfully launched 34 small commercial satellites to orbit for paying customers.

The main draw though for rocket enthusiasts was undoubtedly the helicopter capture of the first stage Electron booster used for the launch, which took off from Launch Complex 1A on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand at roughly 6:48 PM EDT, on Monday, May 2.

Roughly 10 minutes after launch, the private space firm's booster released two parachutes as it made its way to Earth at approximately 5,000 mph. This slowed its descent to a speed of about 22 mph, slowing it down sufficiently for the helicopter capture maneuver.

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck shared video footage from inside the Sikorsky-92 helicopter used to capture the Electron booster as it made its way down towards sea level.

The helicopter then swooped in and caught the Electron booster using a specially designed grappling hook that had been tested on various practice runs prior to the May 2 launch. 

Rocket Lab shares video of its historic mid-air helicopter booster capture
The Rocket Lab Electron first stage booster moments before mid-air capture. Source: Rocket Lab

Rocket lab performs world-first helicopter rocket capture

The catch itself went smoothly, though the pilots weren't able to land the booster as planned. Shortly after the mission, Beck tweeted: "incredible catch by the recovery team, can’t begin to explain how hard that catch was and that the pilots got it. They did release it after hookup as they were not happy with the way it was flying, but no big deal, the rocket splashed down safely and the ship is loading it now."

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Rocket Lab shares video of its historic mid-air helicopter booster capture
Electron on its way home. Source: Peter Beck/Twitter

At a press briefing following the launch, Beck also noted that the helicopter caught the Electron first stage at an altitude of 6,500 feet and reiterated that it was jettisoned shortly afterward as the helicopter pilots weren't happy with how the load handled compared to previous dummy test flights.

The Rocket Lab CEO said he is confident the space firm will solve the issue and he hopes it will be able to reuse the booster that was subsequently loaded onto a drone ship using a crane.

Rocket Lab shares video of its historic mid-air helicopter booster capture
Source: Peter Beck/Twitter

Crucially, Beck also noted on Twitter that the Electron booster's heat shielding — added specifically for this mission — did its job, as it prevented the stage from burning up as it made its descent through Earth's atmosphere.

After the helicopter pilots released the booster once again, the parachutes slowed its descent, allowing it to make a controlled splashdown.

Rocket Lab will now likely employ the mid-air capture maneuver in future missions, helping it reduce the cost of its satellite launch services. In a recent press statement, Beck said "trying to catch a rocket as it falls back to Earth is no easy feat; we're absolutely threading the needle here, but pushing the limits with such complex operations is in our DNA."

The California and New Zealand-based company's next major milestone is to launch its larger Neutron rocket, which will be fully reusable and will utilize an innovative Hungry Hungry Hippo-inspired payload fairing.

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