Rocket Lab manifests third flight, aims for expanded flight rate and launch sites

by Chris Gebhardt

As Rocket Lab continues to put together their manifest for the first operational year of Electron’s service, the company is keeping their eye firmly fixed on the future – with options to expand launch operations to other launch sites while operating Electron in a “sweet spot” within the launch market and capitalizing on the company’s popularity within the spaceflight community.


Presently, Rocket Lab is in the process of finalizing their flight manifest for 2018 and the first operational year of Electron’s service to the small satellite market.  

That first operational flight, Electron’s third overall mission, will carry two Lemur-2 cubesats for Spire Global; Rocket Lab confirmed the primary customer in a media announcement Wednesday (UTC time in New Zealand), stating also that the full manifest will be confirmed in coming weeks.

The Electron rocket on its sea-side launch pad on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

For flight three, Rocket Lab will continue its trend of naming each Electron rocket.  The first Electron was called “It’s a Test” while the second was named “Still Testing”.  For flight three, Rocket Lab conducted an online poll with three suggested names. The winning name, “It’s Business Time” was chosen by the company as the name for the third rocket.

In a statement to media, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck stated that “‘It’s Business Time’ highlights Rocket Lab’s agile approach to responsive space.  The launch has been manifested just weeks out from launch, rather than the many months or years it can typically take under existing launch models.

“It’s Business Time” will be shipped from Rocket Lab’s Huntington Beach, California, production facility to the launch site in Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand, in the coming weeks.

In an interview with NASASpaceflight’s Chris Gebhardt, Mr. Beck stated that flight four will be for NASA carrying the ELaNa XIX payloads: ANDESITE, CeREs, CHOMPTT, Da Vinci, ISX, NMTSat , RSat-P, Shields 1, STF 1, CubeSail 1, CubeSail 2, GeoStare, TomSat Eagle Scout, TomSat R3, and SHFT 1.

An Indian Space Research Organisation PSLV rocket lifts off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota. (Credit: ISRO)

In terms of the longer-range manifest this year, an unexpected hiccup presented itself last week when Swarm Technologies came under investigation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States following the unauthorized and unlicensed launch of four of the company’s SpaceBee demo satellites in January on an Indian Space Research Organisation’s PSLV rocket.

The SpaceBees’ launch took place a month after the FCC refused to authorize the launch and give Swarm Technologies permission to use U.S. comm frequencies for the satellites’ on-orbit operation.  The company launched the satellites anyway in a seeming rebuke of the FCC, whose prime concern was the small size of the satellites and their addition to the space debris problem.

Swarm Technologies had planned to launch additional SpaceBee satellites with Rocket Lab in the next few months; however, following the incident in January, the FCC placed an indefinite hold on the company’s application for this Rocket Lab mission, and Rocket Lab confirmed to Michael Sheetz of CNBC that the company will not launch any payload that does not have proper licensing from the governing authority.

Nonetheless, the issues now facing Swarm Technologies does not greatly impact Rocket Lab’s ability to maintain their manifest this year.  Rocket Lab currently has eight Electron rockets in production and a healthy manifest of customers for launch operations.

Launch sites:

This healthy manifest will more than likely see satellites launched from Rocket Lab’s Māhia Peninsula launch site in New Zealand; however, the company is also looking to expand launch operations outside of New Zealand at both Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Kodiak Island in Alaska.

“We get a tremendous amount out of New Zealand,” stated Mr. Beck to NASASpaceflight.  “We have the largest amount of launch azimuths out of any launch site out of New Zealand.  Which is really good.”

Moreover, the New Zealand government is extremely supportive of Rocket Lab’s Māhia Peninsula launch site.  “We’re very lucky that the New Zealand government has brought up a whole space agency and a regulatory framework for us to be able to operate,” noted Mr. Beck.  

“None of those existed before we started to build Electron.  It’s really quite interesting because their mandate was to enable a space industry, so it’s a really friendly place to do business and to do these kinds of things.  It’s a very enabling environment, down here.”

However, the Māhia Peninsula launch site is located at 39° south latitude, and due to the geography of the region, a 39° inclination is the minimum inclination achievable from the New Zealand launch site.

Customers wishing to achieve orbital inclinations between 0° and 38° latitude will need to make use of another launch site, specifically the Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida – a location Rocket Lab is looking to expand into.

“If we launch out of KSC, it’s much closer to the equator for those low inclination missions,” noted Mr. Beck.  “And Kodiak is good for sun-synchronous payloads.”

Ultimately though, the need for additional launch sites also comes down to capacity, with Mr. Beck stating that while the New Zealand launch site could host launches every 72 hours, “having something that’s also in the northern hemisphere is beneficial.”

Rocket Lab’s launch facility location on the Māhia Peninsula on New Zealand’s northern island, Te Ika-a-Māui. (Credit: Google Maps)

To help with the expected flight rate, Rocket Lab has a plan to build multiple pads at the New Zealand launch site, having specifically designed the infrastructure of the location to support multiple pads.

“Once we hit a cadence of one every two weeks, then we need a second pad.  To go to one a week, we need a third pad down there. So we’ll start building those pads in concert with ramping production,” said Mr. Beck.

In terms of the company’s launch operations expansion to Florida, Rocket Lab states that while the Kennedy Space Center offers a dedicated small launcher pad in LC-39C, the company has no plans to utilize that pad and instead will seek out opportunities for other launch locations at the Cape through Space Florida.

With specific note to LC-39C, located inside LC-39B’s pad perimeter, Mr. Beck stated that Rocket Lab  “most definitely” will not be looking at 39C because while it “is a great pad, with the other programs that are around that pad, it just makes us nervous from a schedule standpoint.

“The way that we like to operate is to own and operate the infrastructure, as you know.  And there’s great opportunities to do that through Space Florida.”

The comment of not using 39C is in relation to NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) Program which has sole ownership and scheduling rights to LC-39B.  NASA has stated that while LC-39C is available to small sat launch companies, no one is allowed to use that pad until the first flight of SLS takes place, a mission that is currently still two years away at best in the early- to mid-2020 time frame.

Even after SLS takes its first flight, NASA still retains scheduling authority for LC-39C, with SLS operations taking precedence over other companies’ potential desires to use the 39C pad while 39B is vacant between proposed SLS missions.

Electron’s sweet spot and popularity:

The need for other launch sites also stems in part due to Rocket Lab’s positioning within the small sat launch community in what is effectively a sweet spot for Electron’s performance and operational abilities.

“Within the Electron’s payload class, we could lift 62% of all the satellites that were flown in 2015.  If we double the size of the vehicle, we only lift another 2% of the market,” said Mr. Beck. “So we think we’ve put the vehicle in a sweet spot.”

The quote quickly went viral and led Rocket Lab to design a shirt for sale to the public with that quote proudly displayed on the front.

Speaking to the company’s popularity achievement in such a short period, Mr. Beck said, “It’s always great, and we’re very humbled.  But Rocket Lab is one of those companies [that has] been operating for over ten years now, just sort of silently in the back, slowly and continuing to build at capability and credibility.

“So it’s not like we sort of just popped on the scene and then we were there.  We do represent newspace and all that goes with it, and I think we like to represent ourselves in a unique way.  And we kind of bring a new attitude to the industry. And all of those things sort of come together, and people can feel like they can associate with us easily.”

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