If Apple or Google ever launched a gadget product that failed, the last thing you’d expect to see is a comforting public apology.
When it comes to the orbital rocket industry, though, the atmosphere is far more collegial.
Over the weekend, the small-launch firm Rocket Lab experienced a ruinous setback: the total loss of an operational space mission valued in the millions of dollars. But instead of gloating or simply ignoring the failure, leaders of space companies competing for business with the roughly $1.4-billion startup stepped up to offer their public support.
Rocket Lab’s failed mission, called “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” — in line with the company’s other cheekily named flights — was its 13th attempt to reach orbit with Electron, a six-story launch vehicle. On board were seven satellites for three different customers.
However, a few minutes after successful liftoff from one of the company’s launch pads in New Zealand, the Electron’s second or upper stage rocket failed. Rocket Lab lost the batch of satellites about 121 miles (195 kilometers) above Earth, according to a live broadcast on YouTube — well before the spacecraft reached their target altitude of 310 miles (500 kilometers) and the requisite speed to slip into orbit.
After the failure, Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, publicly apologized in two separate Twitter posts.
“We lost the flight late into the mission. I am incredibly sorry that we failed to deliver our customers satellites today. Rest assured we will find the issue, correct it and be back on the pad soon,” Beck tweeted on July 4.
The CEO then recorded a 92-second video, which Rocket Lab shared via its Twitter account the same day.
“It’s fair to say that today was a pretty tough day,” Beck said, addressing the company’s customers. “Believe me, we feel and we share your disappointment. However, we will leave no stone unturned to figure out exactly what happened today so that we can learn from it and get back to the pad safely.” He added that “many Electron launch vehicles in production” and that the company is “ready for a rapid return to flight.”
‘Hope you get back to orbit soon. Rockets are hard’
In response to the tweets, Rocket Lab saw a surge of supportive comments, including some from competitors.
“Sorry to hear about this. Hope you get back to orbit soon. Rockets are hard,” Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, tweeted in response to Beck’s video.
Tory Bruno, the CEO of United Launch Alliance, tweeted a curt but supportive message to his colleague: “Hang in there, Peter.”
Dan Hart, the CEO of Virgin Orbit — which recently failed to launch a test mission to space — spoke publicly on behalf of the company.
“Peter, Wishing you and the Rocketlab team all the best as you swiftly find and fix the issue and continue your terrific record of success. Dan, and all of us here at Virgin Orbit,” Hart said.
Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, weighed in with his support, too.
“So sorry to hear this @Peter_J_Beck keep up the cadence and the great work,” Stallmer tweeted.
Rocket Lab even received a supportive message from Planet Labs: one of the companies whose five Earth-imaging satellites it destroyed.
“While it’s never the outcome that we hope for, the risk of launch failure is one Planet is always prepared for,” Planet Labs told Reuters, adding that it looked “forward to flying on the Electron again” in the future.
Prior to Saturday’s failure — Rocket Lab’s first loss of 12 operational missions thus far (its first mission, a test launch in 2017, did not reach orbit) — the company planned to launch its next Electron vehicle from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia in August.
Although engineers are investigating the cause of the failure, a company spokesperson told Business Insider in an email that the loss “will likely have a minimal impact on schedule for our upcoming missions” but noted it’s “too early to give new timings” for those launches.
The spokesperson also said Rocket Lab’s “investigation is progressing well and we’re pushing hard to be back on the pad soon.”
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