Space company Rocket Lab conducted a partially successful rocket recovery on Monday, bringing it one step closer to developing a reusable launch vehicle.
Launched from the Māhia Peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island, Rocket Lab’s mission was called There and Back Again — an appropriate moniker in terms of both its goal and its location in a country associated with Lord of the Rings. The launch aimed to put 34 satellites into orbit, which wasn’t an unusual task for the space company considering its Electron rocket had already ferried 112 of them into space.
What was unusual was There and Back Again’s recovery element, this mission being Rocket Lab’s first attempt to recover the Electron after use.
Rather than following in SpaceX’s footsteps and trying to land the Electron rocket’s first stage by itself, Rocket Lab’s plan was to slow its descent with parachutes before catching it with a helicopter.
Catching a rocket with a helicopter may sound like a cartoonish plan, but apparently it worked. Using a cable dangling from its underside, Rocket Lab’s helicopter was able to grab the Electron as it fell back to Earth at around 22 miles per hour, proving the company’s concept.
Unfortunately, while the catch was successful, unexpected issues with the load forced the helicopter to dunk the rocket into the Pacific Ocean rather than carry it to dry land.
“Incredible catch by the recovery team, can’t begin to explain how hard that catch was and that the pilots got it,” tweeted Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck. “They did release it after hook up 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.”
Still, the semi-successful mission was definitely progress in the quest to make space exploration more sustainable.