US aerospace startup Rocket Lab decided to build a second launch site at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia. Until now, the new rocket company has had only one launch site – a private facility on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand – but this new Virginia site will offer the company more options for its missions and could allow Rocket Lab to launch more frequently in the future.
"In fact, it's to increase our overall launch capacity," says Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab The Verge. "And also, not all customers want to travel to New Zealand for launch, which gives us the position of land in the United States."
The specialty of Rocket Lab is the launch of tiny satellites in space with its Electron rocket, a vehicle that rises almost 56 feet in height – shorter than a six-story building. So far, the company has only launched the Electron twice from New Zealand during two test flights. The first mission in May 2017 has arrived in space but has not reached orbit. The second, in January 2018, arrived in orbit and successfully deployed four small probes, including a shining disco-like satellite that Beck made as an artistic project.
Now, the company is trying to switch to full-time commercial flights, even though it has struggled to take off its first customer mission. Rocket Lab has scheduled two launch attempts for its third flight in April and June this year, but ultimately had to postpone the mission to a later date, after the company noticed strange behavior with one of Electron's motor controllers. Since then Rocket Lab has replaced the parts inside the motor controller. "It's like sitting in your driveway with the engine light on in your car, you will not take a big trip," says Beck. "We saw some behaviors that we were not satisfied with and eventually we ended up replacing a component inside the engine controller."
Now, Rocket Lab hopes to re-launch by the end of the year with two back-to-back flights scheduled for November and December. Meanwhile, the company has worked hard on other projects. The company recently inaugurated a new rocket factory in New Zealand, complete with a new mission control center for combat monitoring outside the Mahia Peninsula. The factory adds to what Rocket Lab has in Huntington Beach, California. The construction was partly to blame for the long distance between flights. "We are building in the long term here, not in the short term," says Beck. "It is very difficult to get a high launch rate when building a factory and moving factories and mission control".
In addition, Rocket Lab also searched for this second launch site. In July, the company announced that it would choose a place in one of the four government-run spaceports: Cape Canaveral, Florida; Vandenberg Air Force Base in California; Wallops Flight Facility; or the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska. Ultimately, Rocket Lab opted for Wallops because much of the infrastructure is already in place to support a new launchpad, such as where to store the propellant and stations to track launch rockets. Also, there is not much traffic from Wallops.
"There are many things at the Cape right now, with many different launchers jumping out of there," says Beck. "While Wallops is relatively very quiet."
Beck states that Rocket Lab will invest 20 million dollars to build the new site, which will be called Launch Complex 2. (The New Zealand plant is called Launch Complex 1.) But the company is not just building a pad; it is also building a completely new structure, complete with clean rooms for the management and integration of space vehicles, offices and a mission monitoring room for flight monitoring. After the company announced the selection today, construction crews will immediately start building the pad. Rocket Lab says it is working with Virginia Space, a group that aims to promote commercial space flight activity in the state, to build all the hardware of the bespoke launchpad for Electron.
The goal is to run the first flight out of the Wallops facility by the third quarter of next year. Once things are working, Rocket Lab hopes it can finally exhibit about a month launch from Virginia. Due to the location of the site, the pad is more suitable for satellites that go into medium-low incline orbits or paths that run diagonally to the equator. The New Zealand launchpad is really the best solution for satellites that go into orbits that exceed the poles. Eventually, Rocket Lab will probably find another more suitable launch site for rockets that fly east past the equator. That decision is still far, however.
Ultimately, the goal of Rocket Lab is to launch as frequently as possible, and the company claims that Wallops will be of help. Rocket Lab claims that its launch site in New Zealand can support a mission every 72 hours, allowing up to 120 flights a year. And with the addition of Wallops, Rocket Lab will now be able to support over 130 flights a year, according to the company.
Of course, Rocket Lab still needs to get its third space flight first; we'll see if it happens in November. But if it is successful, the company aims to achieve up to 16 launches next year, hoping to undermine what defines a very complete manifest. Perhaps one of those missions will take place from Virginia. "It's an exciting time," says Beck. "We've been in orbit, the vehicle is good, and this next milestone has been completed, which is resizing to make this service more regular and reliable."