Last weekend’s Rocket Lab launch of two BlackSky satellites didn’t go accounting to plan, with an “anomaly” occurring that resulted in the loss of the May 16, 2021 “Running Out Of Toes” mission. BlackSky lost its two imaging satellites onboard the Electron rocket.
“We are deeply sorry to our customer BlackSky for the loss of their payloads,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and chief executive. “We understand the monumental effort that goes into every spacecraft and we feel their loss and disappointment. Our team is working hard to identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible. On one of our toughest days, our team operated with professionalism and worked swiftly to ensure the anomaly was managed safely. Our team is resilient, and our top priority remains to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers. We will learn from this, and we will be back on the pad again.”
The issue occurred following second stage ignition, with the lift-off, first stage burn, and stage separation all going according to plan. Rocket Lab did recover the Electron first stage from the ocean as planned, part of its ongoing efforts to ultimately reuse the Electron first stage to increase flight rate.
Rocket Lab is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to investigate the incident and identify the cause to correct the issue. The mission loss occurred after 17 successful orbital launches of the Electron. Rocket Lab doesn’t anticipate any major delays in returning to flight, given it has multiple launch vehicles in production.
Over a total of 20 Electron flights, Rocket Lab has lost three vehicles, the first with the company’s first test flight in May 2017 and the second in July 2020. The July 2020 failure also occurred due to a problem during the second stage burn, while the first loss was intentional when the company terminated the flight for range safety reasons due to a loss in telemetry.
It is unlikely that the “Toes” loss will have a significant impact upon Rocket Lab’s SPAC plans or overall plans for the company to start operations out of its LC-2 launch complex at NASA Wallops Island, Virginia. Rocket Lab has been working with NASA to certify an automated flight termination system for LC-2 operations with the process taking longer than anticipated.
While other small launch companies may use the “Toes” loss to cast doubt on Rocket Lab, it should be noted the company has lost more missions (3) than any of its would-be competitors have successfully conducted commercial missions.
BlackSky’s operations are affected to the extent the company had committed to launch a total of nine satellites onboard five Rocket Lab missions between March and the end of 2021. The sooner Rocket Lab can get back into operations, the sooner BlackSky can get more satellites into orbit, but BlackSky initially said that it expected to deliver capabilities in 2021 originally planned in 2022 through the five Rocket Lab launches announced this year.