On May 15, 2021, Rocket Lab experienced an anomaly almost three minutes into the company’s 20th Electron launch. Following a successful lift-off from Launch Complex 1, Electron proceeded through a nominal first stage engine burn, stage separation, and stage 2 ignition. Shortly after the second stage ignition, the engine shut down, resulting in the loss of the mission.
Rocket Lab continued to receive good telemetry from Electron following the safe engine shutdown on stage two, providing engineers with comprehensive data to review as part of a robust review into the anomaly. The extensive data is being methodically scoured to enable the review team to accurately pinpoint the issue and implement corrective actions for future missions. Rocket Lab is leading the flight review with the support of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); a structure that ensures Rocket Lab maintains a high degree of control over its return-to-flight schedule.
Preliminary data reviews suggest an engine computer detected an issue shortly after stage 2 engine ignition, causing the computer to command a safe shutdown as it is designed to do. The behavior had not been observed previously during Rocket Lab’s extensive ground testing operations, which include multiple engine hot fires and full mission duration stage tests prior to flight. The vehicle remained within the pre-determined safety corridor during the flight. The full review is expected to be complete in the coming weeks and Rocket Lab anticipates a swift return to flight.
“We deeply regret the loss of BlackSky’s payload and we are committed to returning to flight safely and reliably for our customers,” said Rocket Lab founder and chief executive, Peter Beck. “We are methodically working through the review process to address the issue. After 17 successful missions and more than 100 satellites deployed to orbit prior to this mission, and with multiple launch vehicles currently in production, we are confident in a swift and reliable return to flight with minimal impact on our launch manifest this year.”
Flight data shows Electron’s first stage performed nominally during the mission and did not contribute to the flight issue. The first stage safely completed a successful splashdown under parachute as planned and Rocket Lab’s recovery team retrieved the stage from the ocean for transport back to Rocket Lab’s production complex as part of the company’s reusability test program.
The new heat shield debuted in this flight protected the stage from the intense heat and forces experienced while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and the program took yet another major advancement towards reusability of the rocket. The engines remain in good condition and Rocket Lab intends to put them through hot fire testing for analysis.
Selected components from the recovered stage are also suitable for reflight on future missions. Rocket Lab’s program to make Electron a reusable launch vehicle is advancing quickly and the company intends to conduct its third recovery mission later this year.
In March 2021 Rocket Lab announced plans to become a publicly listed company on the Nasdaq via a merger agreement with Vector Acquisition Corporation (Nasdaq: VACQ), a special purpose acquisition company. On May 7, 2021, Vector and Rocket Lab confidentially submitted a registration statement on Form S-4 to the Securities and Exchange Commission and both parties continue to work towards the completion of the transaction.
After 17 successful launches of their Electron rocket, Rocket Lab experienced an anomaly during their 20th Electron mission “Running Out Of Toes” following a successful liftoff, first stage burn and stage separation.
According to the company, the issue occurred following second stage ignition during the flight on May 15, 2021, UTC, resulting in the loss of the mission. The launch vehicle’s second stage remained within the predicted launch corridor and caused no harm to the public, Rocket Lab’s launch or recovery crews or the launch site. Electron’s first stage safely completed a successful splashdown under parachute and Rocket Lab’s recovery team is working to retrieve the stage from the ocean as planned.
Rocket Lab is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to investigate the anomaly and identify the root cause to correct the issue for future missions.
“We are deeply sorry to our customer BlackSky for the loss of their payloads. We understand the monumental effort that goes into every spacecraft and we feel their loss and disappointment. Our team is working hard to identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and chief executive. “On one of our toughest days, our team operated with professionalism and worked swiftly to ensure the anomaly was managed safely. Our team is resilient, and our top priority remains to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers. We will learn from this, and we will be back on the pad again.”
With multiple launch vehicles currently in production, Rocket Lab is prepared for a rapid return to flight as soon as investigations are complete and any required corrective actions are in place.