NASA and Rocket Lab Clear Way for 2022 Electron Launch from Virginia

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An electron on the pad of Launch Complex 2, Wallops Island, Virginia. Photo: RocketLab

rocket labThe Wallops Flight Facility launch site on the east coast of Virginia is expected to see a 2022 launch, as Rocket Lab and Nasa nearing completion of a new flight safety certification system.

Launch Complex 2 will be the company’s first launch site in the United States. It was built specifically for the Electron rocket and is expected to support monthly orbital launches for US government and commercial missions. The complex has been completed since early 2020, when Rocket Lab deployed an Electron vehicle to the pad, but there have been delays with the Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) that will be used at the range.

According to NASA spokesman Jeremy Eggers, NASA is working to certify NASA-developed software for the NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU), which Rocket Lab intends to use for its flights from Wallops. Rocket Lab worked with NASA on the unit as part of a development partnership.

There has been progress on certification. On December 17, NASA released the most recent version of NAFTU software and documentation for industry and Rocket Lab.

“We remain on track to complete flight safety certification of the software by the end of February 2022,” Eggers said. “Once that happens, Rocket Lab will need to process the software with its hardware and go through a security review. In total, we expect to be able to support the launch of the first Electron launch from Wallops in the second quarter of 2022.”

Meanwhile, Rocket Lab is ready to go to Wallops. “We could put a rocket on this pad and fly tomorrow,” said Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab. By satellite. “NASA has had a number of delays in completing the [certification] to treat. So I hope [in 2022]we will be able to view our vehicle on this platform and have customers line up and start flying from there. »

When Rocket Lab chose Wallops over Cape Canaveral for its US launch site in 2018, the company targeted an aggressive schedule, hoping to launch from Wallops in the third quarter of 2019. Rocket Lab had to adjust its launch schedule while waiting . A US Space Force/Air Force Research Laboratory mission launched in July had to be moved to New Zealand Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 due to the delay in the certification process. The launcher plans to perform ten additional launches per year on the new Wallops launch pad.

The AFTS development partnership between Rocket Lab and NASA grew out of issues with launch processes during Rocket Lab’s first flight in May 2018.

“Our very first flight was lost due to a simple software setup on the ground on a traditional flight termination system,” Beck said. “After that flight, we said, ‘No, never again. We don’t have all these guys on the buttons, and we don’t make mistakes and so on. We are going to do everything with a computer and we are going to do it independently. We worked with NASA who had an autonomous system in development, and we started flying it with them a year ago. We used the Autonomous Flight Termination System to fly out of the New Zealand range on a standard basis.

NASA now hopes to transition all US launches from manual flight termination operations to autonomous flight termination. NASA is not the main driver of the conversion to AFTS, Eggers said, but rather it is an industry-wide initiative.

“The NAFTU is a revolutionary command and control system for small launch vehicle vendors to use on all US launch ranges to ensure public safety during launch operations. The system offers a number of advantages, such as wider launch windows, smaller downstream safety corridors which improve area clearance operations, and reduced ground systems requirements/expenses.

“The autonomous system that we worked on with NASA is a NASA product, and it’s NASA software,” Beck said. “They certify their own software to allow their own electronics and software package to be used on any launcher in any range in America. Ultimately, what they’re trying to create, and what we’re partnering with them to create, is a box of electronics that every launcher can bolt on and use on any American range.

When NASA completes all of its software updates and certifies the software, Beck says, all the pain of a flight termination system will be evaporated for other launch vendors.

“Vendors can just go buy the box from NASA, put it on their rocket, and fly without all the traditional flight termination system people,” he says. “As we see all of these new rocket engines come to market, they will all drive the system that Rocket Lab has so painstakingly developed alongside a government partner. It’s amazing for the industry.

Peter Beck, Founder and CEO of Rocket Lab. Photo: RocketLab

Rationalization of the space industry

Rocket Lab is taking steps to make space missions easier and more streamlined. In August, Rocket Lab merged with special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Vector Acquisition and is now publicly traded on NASDAQ. The Rocket Lab Vector agreement, along with an additional manufacturing facility currently under construction at the Auckland production complex in New Zealand, will help expand the company’s end-to-end space services offerings, including manufacturing of spacecraft and the management of spacecraft in orbit. With Rocket Lab’s Satellite-as-a-Service configuration, customers can purchase launch, satellite, ground services, and in-orbit management as part of a turnkey package.

Beck said the space industry can reach its potential when suppliers streamline operations to achieve scale.

“My view has always been that when you combine both satellite and launch, there are so many advantages to doing that, from an optimization point of view, from a schedule point of view and from a view of profitability,” he said. “We’re trying to build this space enterprise from start to finish, whether it’s launched on our rocket or someone else’s rocket, or even at the component level, where we can provide solutions for the whole Of the industry. But the most important thing is to do it on a large scale.

“We’ve read all the reports that say the space industry will be a $1.4 trillion or $2 trillion industry by 2030. None of this will happen unless the industry grows. We’re trying to be that large-scale provider that can get those mega-constellations built and deployed in the time frame everyone expects.

There are so many things that need to happen before a new space company reaches orbit, including raising capital, building a team, and contracting or manufacturing a satellite, Beck said. This process takes 18 months or even up to two years. “Wouldn’t it be an interesting world where this process was reduced to a few months, making it easier to get customers into orbit?” says Beck. “It will be one of the things that will transform the space industry.”

As a teenager, Beck would sit in a classroom in New Zealand dreaming of one day working for NASA. “How crazy is it that we now fly NASA payloads all the time?” he said. “Outside of the Apollo era, I don’t think we’ve seen as much change, as much growth and as much innovation in the space industry as we have over the past decade.

“I’m not going to stay on this planet forever,” he said. “We’re trying to build a business that has longevity.”

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