FAA clears Rocket Lab to fly again after ‘sneaky’ issue causes launch failure

Rocket Lab CEO says teams identified issue, made changes to production process

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket on its 13th flight. (Image: Rocket Lab) (wkmg 2020)

California-based space startup Rocket Lab will resume launching its Electron rockets from New Zealand this month four weeks after the company experienced its first launch failure.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a call with reporters Friday the Federal Aviation Administration approved the company to resume launches after an FAA-supported investigation identified the cause of the July 4 launch failure from Mahia, New Zealand.

While the company is based in Long Beach, California it has two launch pads, one in New Zealand and one at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virgina.

Electron had 12 previous successful launches from New Zealand prior to the 13th doomed launch.

The rocket had a normal liftoff but several minutes into the second stage burn, the rocket engine performed a safe shutdown and failed to deliver its payload to orbit.

Rocket Lab’s team was able to continue to pull data from Electron after the shutdown, which helped narrow down the issue to a problematic electrical connection that became disconnected after heating caused the surrounding compounds to liquefy resulting in the engine shutdown.

The electrical disconnection was not detected during any testing or during any prior launch and was created by “incredibly specific and unique circumstances,” and was a “very, very sneaky and tricky, you know, issue to try and screen for,” Beck said.

After duplicating the issue, Beck said the team was about to mitigate the problem through a slight change in its production process. He credited the 600-person workforce with making this their No. 1 priority.

“Literally 10 minutes after we saw some anomalous behavior during the flight the team was already starting to work it, and they haven’t stopped, it’s just been absolutely relentless,” Beck said.

Rocket Lab did not announce when in August the company plans to launch again or with what payload.