Rocket Lab’s first test rocket failed to reach orbit because of a communication mishap

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Aerospace startup Rocket Lab says it knows why the first test launch of its small rocket failed to reach orbit in May. The failure had nothing to do with the rocket itself, but instead the mission was terminated early because of a problem with ground equipment supporting the launch. Now that Rocket Lab knows what happened, the company says there’s an easy fix and will take corrective measures so the failure doesn’t happen again.

The May test launch — dubbed “It’s a Test” — was the first flight ever of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. The vehicle, which launches from New Zealand, has been under development for the last four years, and Rocket Lab is now finally doing full-scale test flights through the end of the year. Ultimately, the Electron is capable of carrying payloads between 330 and 500 pounds into orbit, and is specifically geared toward launching small satellites. Rocket Lab plans to sell launches on the vehicle for $4.9 million per flight, a cheap price tag compared to other larger commercial rockets that run tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Electron performed perfectly well during the first test flight and the rocket still made it to space. But about four minutes in, the vehicle was about 139 miles up when the ground equipment briefly lost contact with the rocket. This prompted officials to stop the flight, a standard procedure when communication is lost. Afterward, Rocket Lab pored over 25,000 channels of data to figure out what happened, and ultimately realized some of the communication equipment on the ground had been misconfigured. The equipment was operated by an unnamed third-party contractor.

If the communications interruption hadn’t occurred, the Electron should have reached orbit, according to Rocket Lab. “We have demonstrated Electron was following its nominal trajectory and was on course to reach orbit,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “While it was disappointing to see the flight terminated in essence due to an incorrect tick box, we can say we tested nearly everything, including the flight termination system.”

Now, Rocket Lab is moving forward with the next test launch of the Electron. Called “Still Testing,” this second flight should occur in the coming weeks. Rocket Lab’s original plan was to do three test flights before moving to commercial missions, but Beck told Space News that if this second flight is a success, the company will skip the third test and move straight to launching customer payloads.

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