Never Prebook Your Return Flight From a Rocket Launch

Anyone who travels to rocket launches regularly knows three things: Bring snacks, wear sunscreen, and don’t book your flight home for the night after the scheduled takeoff. Chances are, you’ll either miss the launch or your plane.

A company called Rocket Lab provides no exception. The commercial space organization hopes to send up rockets just the right size for smaller satellites. But of three total launch attempts, it has delayed or scrubbed all of them.

That chronological stuttering can feel like a contradiction. Rocket Lab cultivates a persona of quickness: Its engineers 3-D-print the engines, it aims to launch one rocket a month, it’s agile, an upstart. But despite its marketed image, Rocket Lab has been cautious about actually lobbing rockets. “We’re a conservative bunch of people,” says Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “We’ll fly when everything is great.” And in these early stages, both customers and analysts appear to see the delays as normal—and preferable to combustive paroxysm. They’re not worried. Yet.

On June 22, Rocket Lab started the countdown for its first real launch, in operational and not experimental mode, called “It’s Business Time.” The Electron, looking like the little pencil that could, stood on a launchpad on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, clouds of vapor billowing toward the cold sky. But they were the only things that would go up that day: The launch was called off at T-minus-23-minutes when a tracking dish, an antenna that communicates with and pinpoints the rocket, acted up.

On June 26, the Electron stood up to try again. But minutes after the launch window opened, the company said there was “an issue” with the motor controller, which manages commands sent to and from hardware and software on the rocket.

Rocket Lab had already delayed this inaugural commercial launch by two months, for a similar motor-controller problem. “It’s kind of like a hazard light flicking on in the dash of your car,” says Beck. “You would never go on a big trip.” Beck believed the company’s engineers had resolved the issue, but when that same metaphorical hazard light lit up again, the company called off the countdown and shut the launch window. “We’re not in the business of taking risk,” says Beck.

But no one in the launch business can be 100 percent successful, 100 percent of the time. Even much-vaunted aerospace vehicles, like the Falcon 9, explode. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed. The Russian Proton hasn’t always been a roaring success either. They’re rockets, man: They don’t work sometimes. “You can never have all the risk figured out,” says Caleb Williams, a space systems analyst at engineering and consulting firm SpaceWorks. “So there’s always going to be some leap of faith at some point.”

But it makes sense for the company to skew conservative during the Electron’s infancy. It’s kind of like if you want to make a good first impression at a party, and your options are (A) blowing up the house, (B) throwing the hosts’ valuables where they don’t belong, or (C) being late—and making everyone watch a livestream of the door till you arrive.

You’d probably pick Option C.

Curt Blake, the president of Spaceflight Industries, agrees. “I think you’re probably always better off not blowing stuff up,” he says. Spaceflight has signed on for three Rocket Lab launches—but not for its own satellites: The company gathers up other people’s smallsats and books their launches, usually on bigger rockets with VIP bigger satellites. Rocket Lab, as a dedicated smallsat launch option, gives Spaceflight’s customers more control. And the delays don’t have Blake worried. “This is not uncommon and certainly not out of the realm of what we expected in terms of the first few launches,” he says.

Other customers, like York Space Systems, seem unconcerned as well. York is trying to facilitate access to orbit with standardized small-sat platforms that you can customize—kind of like buying a base-model car and souping it up. In April, York and Rocket Lab partnered to also standardize the launch logistics, and York signed some of its customers on to Electron rockets. Dirk Wallinger, York’s founder and CEO, isn’t worried about Rocket Lab’s call-offs, and neither are York’s customers. “If they have some delays for a month or two, even for the next three to four launches, we get it,” he says.

But, at least historically, with the bigger rockets, people haven’t been willing to sit around ad infinitum to go ad astra. “There’s a finite amount of time they’re going to wait,” says Williams, the analyst. “These customers are not opposed to pulling their payload and going to another provider.” That’s happened at Spaceflight Industries, which will sometimes pull out a particular smallsat that needs or wants to fly sooner, and then swap in a spacecraft from another customer that’s either been standing by for less time or cares less.

Whatever happens with the next launch (and whenever it happens), that stellar Latin phrase has another half, which always seems relevant to rocket science. It’s per aspera ad astra: through hardship to the stars.


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