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Rocket Lab May Bail on Using Helicopters to Catch Falling Rockets

After two failed attempts last year, the company may just try to recover its reusable rockets from the ocean.

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The helicopter managed to catch the rocket booster but ended up dropping it.
The helicopter managed to catch the rocket booster but ended up dropping it.
Screenshot: Rocket Lab

In a disappointing turn of events, Rocket Lab is reconsidering its daredevil method of trying to catch and recover its Electron boosters mid-air using a helicopter.

During an earnings call on Tuesday, Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck revealed that the company is now thinking about recovering its Electron booster straight from the ocean rather than trying to snag it before it hits the water, SpaceNews reported.


Rocket Lab has been testing out a daring way to recover its rocket’s first stage. As the Electron rocket falls back to Earth with the help of a parachute to slow down its speed, a customized helicopter will be ready to catch it mid-air by hooking onto its parachute line.

The California-based company attempted its mid-air booster catch twice last year. In May, the helicopter managed to catch the booster when it was about 6,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean. The helicopter was then meant to safely transport the booster to shore, but ended up dropping it in the ocean after the pilots noticed different load characteristics than earlier test flights. For the second attempt in November, the company opted to abort the helicopter catch altogether due to a momentary loss of telemetry from the booster.


Both times, the Electron booster was recovered from the ocean. Although the whole point of the mid-air recovery was to prevent the booster from being submerged in the water (to increase its potential for reusability), the rocket did just fine after its swim.

“This turned out to be quite a happy turn of events,” Beck is quoted in SpaceNews as saying. “Electron survived an ocean recovery in remarkably good condition, and in a lot of cases its components actually pass re-qualification for flight.”

Hmm, I wonder if Rocket Lab’s customers will be cool with the idea of having their satellites lofted to orbit with boosters previously submerged in water. Anyhoo, I guess that means no need for cool stunts involving a helicopter. Rocket Lab will add more waterproofing to its Electron rocket and attempt an ocean recovery for an upcoming flight. “Pending this outcome of testing and analysis of the stage, the mission may move us towards sticking with marine recovery altogether and introduce significant savings to the whole operation,” Beck said on the call.

More: Rocket Lab Successfully Launches Its First Electron Rocket From U.S. Soil