Fans express frustration as Rocket Lab postpones helicopter catch attempt again

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket and rescue helicopter
The audacious attempt would allow the company to double its launches. Photo credit: Supplied / Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab, the space company founded by Kiwi Peter Beck, has postponed its audacious attempt to catch a falling rocket using a helicopter for a second time.

The 'There And Back Again' mission was originally scheduled for Saturday morning in New Zealand, but amid troublesome weather conditions the company said it wasn't willing to take any undue risks with its rocket catch.

"We don't usually give Mother Nature quite so much power over launch timing, but for our first helicopter catch attempt we want to line up the best possible conditions to give us the highest chance of a successful catch," the company wrote on Twitter.

"The weather has improved through the week, but the forecast is showing the best wind and cloud cover conditions a few days from now, so we’re targeting no earlier than 1 May UTC / 2 May NZST for launch."

However, the scheduled take-off from Aoteatroa's Māhia Peninsula earlier today was also put off until at least tomorrow, May 3 (NZ time).

"After a busy week of capture testing, and while we wait for weather to improve, we're taking an additional day for final helicopter and recovery system optimisation ahead of our first mid-air capture attempt," Rocket Lab tweeted.

"We're now targeting no earlier than 2 May UTC / 3 May NZST for launch."

The company's decision to play it safe hasn't been welcomed by all space fans online.

"You won't always have the perfect conditions for recovery, sometimes you just need to launch and try your best," one wrote in reply to the company's second postponement.

"This sounds more like bad planning. That helicopter has been sitting for a week," wrote another.

Others were more optimistic.

"Any delay shows Rocket Lab's strength, if it was a weak management they would launch too early and fail like Astra's launch failures," one sanguine fan tweeted.

"Rocket Lab has a 97 percent success rate for a reason. They care about their customers' payload more than other rocket companies," they concluded.

Being cautious is understandable, with Beck describing the operation as "threading the needle", with the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter having to track the booster as it travels at 8300 km/h.

As it plummets back to Earth, the helicopter, stationed around 150km off Aotearoa's coast, will prepare for the catch attempt.

"After deploying a drogue parachute at 13km altitude, the main parachute will be extracted at around 6km altitude to dramatically slow the stage to 10 metres per second, or 36km/h," the company said, detailing the process.

"As the stage enters the capture zone, Rocket Lab's helicopter will attempt to rendezvous with the returning stage and capture the parachute line via a hook."

Last week Beck told Reuters he was "pretty confident" the helicopter pilots would catch the booster if they were able to see it, but wasn't overly concerned if it wasn't a success.

"If we don't get it this time, we'll learn a bunch and we'll get it the next time, so I'm not super worried."

A successful catch should ensure the company is able to double the number of missions it launches, with the booster being able to be re-used more quickly than it would if it landed in the ocean.