Rocket Lab's Electron Rocket Launch from Wallops Island, VA

Excerpt from the Space Review

by Jeff Foust, January 3, 2023

A Rocket Lab Electron, resting horizontally and wrapped in blankets, awaiting launch from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia, in December. (credit: J. Foust)

While Virgin Orbit was waiting for its licensing paperwork from the CAA, Rocket Lab was waiting for a different approval. The company was gearing up for its long-awaited first launch from Launch Complex 2, its launch site at Wallops Island, Virginia. The facility itself was completed three years ago with plans to host a first Electron launch there in mid-2020.

However, to launch from Wallops, Rocket Lab would need a new autonomous flight termination system developed by NASA, which oversees the launch range. That system, called the NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit, or NAFTU, was completed in 2020, but a review found numerous errors in its software. That led to a cross-agency review of the system that brought in experts from the FAA and Space Force to assist.

By early 2022, NAFTU was ready for an independent review and certification, which found additional issues that needed to be fixed. “We knocked down each one of those challenges, one by one, and we completed independent testing in the summer of 2022,” said David Pierce, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, at a December 14 briefing.

By the fall, NAFTU was formally certified and handed over to Rocket Lab. There was nothing left to do before Rocket Lab could attempt to launch its Electron December 16 other than what Pierce described as some minor paperwork to demonstrate its flight safety plan to the FAA.

A day later, though, Rocket Lab announced that the December 16 flight would be delayed at least two days because of the need by NASA and the FAA to complete “range-driven documentation”: the paperwork that Pierce mentioned the previous day.

Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, expressed his frustration with the delay with a head-banging tweet. In an interview at Rocket Lab’s Wallops facility on December 16, he acknowledged he was “disappointed and frustrated” in the problem that was beyond his control and which he felt should have been resolved long ago.

“This is the first time and there’s always going to be some teething issues,” he said. “I guess we’re just frustrated that these teething issues didn’t happen six months ago. It happened literally days before we were ready to launch.” Rocket Lab, he said, had been ready for its “Virginia Is for Launch Lovers” mission, carrying three HawkEye 360 radiofrequency surveillance satellites, since early December.

The paperwork issue was resolved, but high upper-level winds scrubbed the December 18 launch attempt. Forecasts did not improve by the time the launch period closed December 20, forcing Rocket Lab to postpone the launch until after the holidays.

Beck said he doesn’t expect the problems leading up to the first Electron launch from Wallops to be repeated. Rocket Lab said in a November earnings call it expected to perform as many as 14 Electron launches in 2023, four to six of which would be from Launch Complex 2.

New Zealand’s Launch Complex 1, though, owned and operated by Rocket Lab, will continue to be the primary launch site for Electron. The challenges of getting started at Wallops, he said, “make you appreciate owning your own range where you’re in control of all of this and you’re dealing with one regulator directly.”

As Rocket Lab and others gear up for new launch attempts in January, SpaceX is already off and running. Its first Falcon 9 launch of the year took place on the morning of January 3, carrying 114 smallsats for many customers as part of its Transporter series of dedicated rideshare launches. That launch alone may end up placing more satellites into orbit than what many small launch vehicles companies will achieve combined in 2023.

Jeff Foust ([email protected]) is the editor and publisher of The Space Review, and a senior staff writer with SpaceNews. He also operates the web site. Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.