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A conversation with Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck on recovering Electron

A conversation with Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck on recovering Electron

– Hi, it’s me, Tim Dodd,
The Everyday Astronaut. I am here at Rocket Labs
brand new launch facility in Wallops, Virginia. This is Mars Pad 0C, and this will allow
Rocket Lab to launch their awesome little electron
rocket from the United States. You know, right now they
only have launch complex one in New Zealand, this
is launch complex two, and I still have a lot of questions, especially, Rocket Lab is
working on reusability for their awesome electron rocket, so
I wonder if there’s anyone that could, you know, answer
a few more questions about that whole thing. You mind if we talk up here… on your launchpad? – No! (Tim laughing) – So I guess let’s talk
to someone that knows a lot about everything Rocket Lab. Don’t fall in the pit,
don’t fall in the pit don’t fall in the pit. Hey Peter! – Hey Tim!
– How are ya? – Good to see you again. – You freezing your butt off out here? – Yes.
(Tim laughs) – Well, it’s a good place
to end the year though! We’re almost 2020!
– It is a wonderful place, yep. – And, you guys had an unbelievable year. – Yeah, I’m super proud
of the team for 2019. I think we can end up this year
with a smile on their face. – Yeah, so you ended up
with six launches right? – Yup. – And, you ended up with
two launchpads now online? – Yup. – And you, ended up
working on recoverability? – Yeah, no, we achieved
a pretty decent milestone with recoverability, actually. It was way better than we expected. – As you know, that’s
what I want to start on, ’cause that’s really exciting. So, you’re sitting back
here, mister, I don’t know, probably not gonna try, recoverability doesn’t have margins in it. First off, tell me what
kind of closed for you on that concept that maybe there is room, maybe it’s worth it. Just run me through your
thought process there. – So, small launch vehicles are notoriously difficult, right? ‘Cause the margin on a small
launch vehicle is so tight. When you’ve only got 150 kilograms of payload to play with,
adding 100 kilograms of parachutes, it’s just
very difficult to trade. – So, what really got
me thinking is I started to look at the data and started to see how well stage one was surviving. We got good measurements during ascent of the environments, and really, I started understanding
everything that was going on. And then also, trying to
increase launch cadence at the same time, and
steering out into a factory where we knew we were
going to have to double the size of this factory,
and just keep on building more and more machines,
and automating more and more and more, and it
just sort of became obvious, well, the data doesn’t
say that it’s insane, it says it’s difficult,
but we’re not breaking any laws of physics here. – So, yeah, I formed a small
team within the company and we started to go after it. – Do you have, just a chalkboard full of Wile E. Coyote style,
what’s going to work for us? – Yeah, I mean there was
plenty of whiteboard sessions, that’s for sure. – Share with me, one other
one, before you landed on, was there even something
close, another contender before you landed on trying
to do the air recovery? – Yeah, I mean we looked
at landing it in a net not dissimilar to what
SpaceX does with experience. Obviously, we looked
at propulsive re-entry, but that was, you know, you only get half a napkin filled out before you realize that’s just not going to work. (Tim laughing) And then, yeah, there was all sort of all different concepts
from the team, you know, giant drones, and all
sorts of stuff, yeah. – Yeah, okay, I guess we’re going to pop right into that, that’s
actually, I do a podcast with some guys, it’s called
“Our Ludicrous Future”, and each week, we take
people’s questions of “Why don’t they just…” – Yeah, yeah, right. – And that was a good one,
it was “Why don’t they just use a giant drone, you
guys already have batteries, you have motors, and it could be cheaper than operating a helicopter, you could even do four of them that fly in unison”, why didn’t
that end up working out? – Well, I mean, I’m trying
to get my helicopter’s license, so,
– (laughs) I know you are. using a helicopter is great. – Is this just you wanting to fly a helicopter more often?
– No, no, no, but there’s a small atom of it. (Tim Laughing) But, no, I mean, many
have recaptured with a helicopter, it’s been done before. And I know a lot of
people look at that and they sort of, they say
“Man that’s super tricky” and “How are they going to pull that off?” but really that is, relatively academic, compared to actually
re-entering the stage and getting it through one bit. – Right, well, do you work
with the company that was based out of, was it Scotland or England, that has the recovery system? Really? – No, no. – Okay, ‘ccause, of course, everyone on the internet immediately
saw what you guys are working on, and go “Well,
this has already been done” here’s a video of company recovering a, it was a mock-up booster with a parafoil. – Yeah, I mean it’s been done. Lockheed Martin did it, I
think it was in the 90’s, to try and recover some… re-entered artifacts, so yeah. I mean it’s in, you know,
if you go back far enough you look at the Corona missions, all that was in a helicopter,
it’s still the same gig. – Right, same, yup. Getting through re-entry popping a chute, swooping it up before it hits the water. – Yup, that’s pretty much it. – And, how much time do
you have between when the parachutes deploy, and
before it hits the ground? – Yeah, so that’s the idea of the parafoil is we can steer it into the wind, and maximize the hang-time there. So, you could have up to twenty minutes. – Really? So you could have multiple attempts with the helicopter. – Yeah, yup, and so we try and limit the descent rate to a maximum
of 10 meters a second so you know, you get a decent opportunity to go and scoop it. – Okay, that’s pretty cool, so I guess, no autonomous drones in
the near-time future? – No, there was talk of autonomous ships at one point, but, no, no
autonomous drones at this point. – Okay, so that’s your “Why don’t they just use (laughs) drones.” – Pete likes flying a helicopter. – Because Pete loves flying
helicopters, that’s why. No, okay, so propulsive,
that came up in a lot of discussions, people say, “Why don’t they do propulsive re-entry?” The simple answer, most likely,
is that you don’t need it. Your booster can survive,
it survived the wall. – Yeah it did survive the wall. – Without propulsive slowdown. – And not only did it survive the wall, it’s the worst possible
descent you could imagine, there was absolutely no
deceleration device on it whatsoever, so it was
just coming in screamin’ hot. – So, okay, a couple
questions come out of that, sorry, I’m just going to keep digging through here, because… Does your engine, the Rutherford, does it actually have re-light capability? – Well, I mean, we
don’t use T-Tabe, we use an igniter torch, so yes it does. But, we don’t actively
use it, I mean there’s a few things we’d need to do, we’d need to purge the chambers with some nitrogen and stuff, but we don’t actually use
it on the launch vehicle, but it’s relatively trivial
to make it relightable. – But, you’ve never had
missions or anything where you need a relight? – No – And that’s what the kick stage is for? – Yeah, well, the kick stage is beautiful, because it’s a right-sized
propulsion system for trying to circulize and insert really, really accurately. That’s the trouble with
doing kind of a second light on a stage two is that you’re
only lit for a few seconds, and it’s just a big thump. Whereas the Courier
burns for like 20 or 30 seconds and you just
get exquisite accuracy. – Yeah, yeah, you have
a long, it’s such a low thresh, or, you can do a tiny
little bit of burn, right? – I tell you, there is
nothing more satisfying than when we would do the
circularization burn on the trims, is you know, in mission control, we have the couple of lines, the
target line, and then the ascent line, and just
watching those two lines just inch together and converge over 30 seconds is just incredibly satisfying, they just (buzzes), and they
just pop, it’s just beautiful. – That is actually amazing,
and there was a recent SpaceX mission where,
you know they have such an overpowered upper stage
with their Merlin engine where they, I think they
lit it (snaps) for like, it wasn’t even, it was like
a half second, or something. They were just like (explosion imitation). It’s like wow, I can’t
imagine the startup transience and all that stuff, just for
that one, quick, little jolt. And you guys are able to, with, when, now you upgraded, too, your
photon, and, do you still do, do you fly photon and Kiri separate, or is it all just photon now? – Yeah, no, so, well it’s
a bit of a debate really. So, the kick stage is
really just a photon now, but we have different
variants, so we have a mono-propellant kick stage and
a bi-propellant kick-stage. So, you know, for missions
that don’t require the extra performance, we just prefer to run mono-propellant,
because, you just gotta open a valve, that’s it. But, for higher performing missions, we run the bi-propellant. – What’s the specific impulse difference between mono-prop and dual-prop? – It’s quite big, you know, it would be probably 50 seconds, 60
seconds, something like that, so it’s pretty decent. – And, how much delta
V does that afford you when you go to the dual-prop? – I can’t remember the exact number, because it depends on what propellant tank combination we’re running as well. So, we’ve got quite a lot
of flexibility in that upper stage to really change
it up depending on missions. I mean, flight 10, we flew
to a high orbit to 400 Ks, and then, we did a re-light, and lowered, and then deployed some more. So, you know, more and
more of these missions, we’re finding, we do multiple re-lights, and change orbits and stuff. – Yeah, it’s a value to
the customer to be able to go directly to where they
need to go, they don’t have to have their own propulsion and do all that stuff.
– Well that’s the whole point of dedicated rocket, right? I mean, if you can’t do that,
then, it’s a ride share. – Yeah, yeah, exactly. So, do you guys still have a mission going out to the moon, is that correct? – Yeah. – Yeah, is that, so how
much of that is riding on the kick stage, does the
kick stage do the full TLI? – Yeah, it’s photon. – Really?
– Yeah, we’ll basically just take a photon to the moon. – Wow, it has that much Delta V kick? – Yeah, yeah, so, like I
say we can configure it and change tank configurations, so, you know, photon to the moon
is just basically a big tank on top of the payload deck. You know, everything is
already there, all the guidance, comms, and
everything, it’s just there. And, you know, we architected
the Kiri engine in a way that it could burn for a very long time. So, yeah, it’s not– – Would it take multiple, I’d assume it’d take multiple
– Yeah, yeah you want – insertion burns?
– to optimize it. Direct inject’s expensive, but– – That will be really
exciting to see that. I mean, just thinking
that a rocket this size, a relatively small rocket
will be able to take a payload to the moon I mean– – Yeah, and I think it’s exciting on a lot of fronts, because it opens up so many different opportunities. You know, TLI injection is
great, but we can also go to GEO we can do a heliocyntrical,
but there’s all sorts of stuff you can do,
which are really exciting. – I didn’t even think about GEO. I’m sure there’s never
been a rocket this small putting anything in
geostationary orbit, right? – No, no I’m sure. – I mean, not even close. So, that’s pretty amazing. One of the things that everyone’s, you know, definitely questioning is, some of the hardware that’s required to do some of your recovery stuff, is that one of the reasons
you also went dual-prop, is to make up for that delta V difference? – Yeah, I mean, wherever
we, we’re continually trying to improve the performance of electron to both gain margin and
also offset the changes that we’re making with recovery. But, like I said before, if
a mission doesn’t require it, then we generally won’t put it on, we’ll just run mono-propellant. – Yeah, so overall, have you done any changes to batteries or
optimization of the engines between flight one and 10 now that have– – It’s amazing really, remarkably few systems have really changed. You know, we’ve understood
the systems better, so we’ve been able to pull back margin, but there’s been no kind
of major re-architect of really any system. You know, we’ll continue this
year, 2020 we’ll continue to kind of tweak, and make a
few improvements along the way, because we will be adding
a bit of mass on stage one to recover, so we’ve got a
pretty simple road map, there, to add performance to the vehicle. – If you don’t mind me
asking, how much mass is added for first stage recoverability? – It really depends on… how successful the ballistic
descents are with parachutes. I mean, I would imagine probably no more than 150 kgs on stage 1, but you have to remember the ratios. – Yes, what was it, about 4:1? – Actually, on electron it’s
much, much more than that. ‘Cause stage 2 does so much of the work, so it’s probably more like 8:1 on a stage 1.
– Really? – Yeah, so we can carry
a lot of mass down there. – I should also explain for
those watching and listening, that means, basically, they
can add a bunch of weight to the first stage and
it doesn’t take nearly as much payload penalty
as it does if you were to stick that weight on the upper stage. So, you add eight kilograms
to the first stage, it’ll only detract about one kilogram from your payload capability. So, I guess, that’s
another question, then, is, “Has there ever been any thoughts?” Okay, I’m going to ask this first, how much specific impulse
is your upper stage? – So the Rutherford, or– – The Rutherford, yeah, sorry,
the Rutherford upper stage. – Yeah, so, it’s around about 342 I think, ’round about there. It’s high performance, it’s
a screaming, little engine. Yeah, it’s about 97%
seastar efficient, 97, 98. It’s a screamer. – So, has there ever been
any thoughts of going with a different propellant on the upper stage, or the first stage, like methane, have you guys looked into methane? – Yeah, not really. I mean, I… I love Kero. I mean I know there’s a
lot of talk about, “Well, it’s easier to have two
cryogenic propellants than one cryogenic and one not.” Well, I prefer not to deal with another cryogenic propellant, personally, especially one that’s a bit flamey. I mean if you’ve seen… some of the stuff from SpaceX recently, that methane sure likes
to go on fire a lot. Kerosene is much different, like that. So, I mean, there’s probably
some performance upgrades there, but just the
handleability of kerosene and just the ease of it. What we’re trying to do here
is just churn launch out, so, you know, adding
systems that add complexity is not really a gig. – I was gonna say that is
almost like your calling card, it’s like, keep it as simple as possible. Everyone wants to, and
this is, again very much an armchair engineer thing,
there’s very much fans of aerospace going like “But,
they could probably launch 400 kilograms if they switched to this, and this, and this!” It’s like, what’s the
trade-off benefit of that? Are you actually going
to increase your amount of customers, payload opportunities, XYZ for all these new
complications, all this new R&D. I remember we spoke about
aerospikes last time I talked to you, and that’s
one of the perfect example of “maybe it might help in some things, or improve certain situations,
but by the end of the day, even if you get it working
perfectly, how much did you spend to get it
working, and is it worth it in the long run?” – Yeah, that’s exactly right.
– You might end up right back on page one, you know? Okay, so optimizing the upper stage. So, probably not going to liquid methane or any other cryogenic fuels,
or changing up systems. I’ve always had a question, two questions about upper stage. – Okay. – You ditch both batteries
at the same time. – Correct. – Is there a reason you don’t stage them; one and then the other? – Yeah, I mean the, payload
gained by doing that is relatively minor, so the
beauty of staging two at once is you don’t introduce any torque offsets, because they null each other out.
– One, right. – Whereas if you poke one
off, then you sort of punch one way and then the other, and look, the guidance will deal with
that no problem at all, you see the guidance when
you punch both of them off, it just doesn’t even know it’s there, and same with the fairings. So, really that came
about from day one trying to minimize risk. And, yeah, for just a
tiny amount of payload just don’t introduce more risk. – Yeah, yup, again the whole
“Don’t introduce more risk.” Second stage has a bunch of sparks that always shoot out of the nozzle. What’s that from again? – Yeah, so, the Rutherford engine is really high performance,
and what that actually is, it’s quite funny, you see people talking, “Oh, they must’ve had a bladed nozzle” despite the fact that
it’s glowing bright red. But, no, they’re little soot deposits. So, the soot deposits kind of build up on the injector face like stalactites, and then they get to a certain size, and then break free, and then
that’s the carbon entrained into the exhaust plane. – Really? – Yeah. – So that’s your soot of RP-1? – Yup. – Wow, and shooting out as what looks like little sparks?
– Little sparks, yeah. – Really? – Yeah, but that injector,
the efficiency is, it’s a good injector, so it’s really– – Are you guys doing on-face, like do you go coaxial, or what do you– – It’s a good injector. – It’s a good injector,
(laughs) keeping it tight. I love it. Okay, so, we’ve talked
about that, we talked about the injections, we talked
about methane, sparky engines. Okay, so, back to
recoverability, we’re going to wrap this all around. You didn’t have to do
any aero-systems at all for your recoverability? – Not any aero-appendages,
but the whole stage was guided through RCS. So, a little Reaction Control Rocket motors.
– Little tiny, they’re cute. They’re little guys, yeah.
– Yeah, they’re a little cute. – But, that’s enough control authority to keep you pointed in
the right direction? – Yeah, so, it’s really interesting, you know, the kind of
dynamic stability of the stage and the hypersonic regime is… It’s when we get into the subsonic regime, then it wants to turn itself backwards, but, during the hypersonic regime, it’s actually quite stable. – Because of the engines
being first, and– – The engines and the batteries are all at the bottom, so all the mass
is down there at the bottom. So, when we… about 5 seconds after
second stage ignited, we started the kind of, maneuver, and the first maneuver
was to do a flip-around, and then align with the re-entry corridor. That was so good, too, because I had that on my screen as well, I was
watching that very carefully, and you know, just watching
those rates come down, and they all just converged down to zero, and I was like, “This is good!” So, this thing is just
sitting bang on zero, I thought “this is good.” And then, you know, we started to reach apogee, and then
you see the, you know, the alignment vector come all good, and then it just stayed all good, and the little engines are firing away and doing their thing. We saw a bit of roll, but
roll is the least damped axis, so, you know, it’s always
hard to deal with roll. – And, you’re not having
to re-light engines, so you don’t have to worry about tank sloshes or anything.
– Roll is good, a bit of barbecue roll, it’s good
so you don’t cook things up. But, all credit to the GNC team, they were committing code
at 2 o’ clock in the morning for weeks and weeks, and tweaking, and tweaking, and tweaking,
so, those guys are just. I mean, you see the
accuracy of the vehicle, and it’s all down to those guys, they’re just incredible, incredible. – That’s amazing, and
what do those little RCS thrusters run on? Are they just– – Cold gas.
– Cold gas, yup? And that’s enough to, I just, it’s so hard to picture,
they’re so little. – Yeah, but, if you’re in
the corridor, it’s good. It’s only a problem if you
get out of the corridor. So, the corridor is super narrow, and if you kind of get out of corridor, then, that’s when the
plasma knives come back out, and you just trip a shockwave boundary, and just attach and you’re done. But, if you can just sit
in that nice little wake, with the big bell shock in
front of you, then life’s good. – It’s so unbelievable
that we’re talking about, that’s a possibility now,
you’re just literally sending it back through the
atmosphere, and it’s coming in, there’s parts of it that
are as hot as the sun, and they’re able to survive. And, did you have to beef
up heat shield around your structure and
stuff like that compared to previous flights? – Well I mean, the bottom
of electron has quite a hefty heat shield as it is, because of the multiple engines. You have a lot of plume-plume interaction, and then, because of that, you have a lot of recirculation flow, especially at certain mach numbers. So, the heat shield’s pretty decent. You know, on the re-entry we did see the heat shield collapse,
because the heat shield was never designed for those
kind of dynamic pressures. But, you know, we were still
receiving solid telemetry, the tanks were still pressed,
systems still responding, telemetry right to
impact, and yeah we lost a couple of data acquisition modules, and some sensors on the heat
shield, but that was it. – Wow, so you think it was– – I think it was in good shape. – Wow.
– Yeah, yeah, all the data would show that it was
in remarkably good shape. – Really, so you’re
going to do that again, basically the same thing? – Well I didn’t expect flight
10 to be so successful, so I figured that with all
of these things, you know, it’s so hard to model and predict, you get a little thing wrong and then
you go and learn from it. So, I said to the team,
“Right, let’s do two in a row, and you know–” – Confirm everything. – Yeah first one, we’ll try our best, we’ll probably learn a lot,
and then we’ll might get the second one right. But, the second time ’round, we’ll… hold onto the live feed a lot longer in the second time ’round. We actually intentionally shut the re-entry camera of the line down, because we wanted to maintain the integrity of the data link. Data is king; images are
great, but data is king. So, we switched into a low-bandwidth mode, and shut down the camera. But as it was, we maintained
one megabit per second link all the way into impact, so we’ll be able to have good camera on the
way in on the next one. – Wow, wow, so that’s great news. So, as far as, so you’re going
to basically do repeating the thing you just did for
flight 10 for flight 11, then, is that when you start
attaching hypersonic balloons and parachutes on flight 12? – Not flight 12, I
expected us to have to do a lot of work before we
would move to the next stage. I think we’re all in kind of, like, a child giddy mode right now, because we’ve got all the
data we needed to proceed, so we’ll do another block upgrade, and that’ll probably
take us a few flights. – Really? – And then we’ll get some chutes on it. – Another, if you don’t mind me asking, what changes are gonna happen? – Chutes, so we’ll get some
chutes on the next one. And, you know, we’ll
still have more work to do with some decelerators,
but what I really want to do is get it onto chutes, get it back in one piece, and in the
ocean, go fish it out, and do some forensics on it. That, we’ll learn the most
by actually physically inspecting the hardware.
– Of course, yeah, so as far as maybe having more
aerodynamic decelerators… has there ever been any talk about having the inter-stage kind of, like, peel back like some kind of flower
petal or anything? – Yeah, actually, the
inter-stage is the wrong place you want it, believe it or not. – Really? – Yeah, it’s not, hypersonic flow regime is a little bit different. – Is it because it ends
up out so far outside of the wake it’s just almost sitting, and not doing any effect at all? – Exactly, because you’re punching in, if you get your corridor right you’ve got a big kind of shadow,
so, you end up having to have something something
super big to be effective. – And that’s just dumb.
– So if you just, yeah, folded your
inter-stage over like petals, there’s just nothing there,
there’s no flow there. – That makes sense, so,
you could potentially have little, small air brakes pop out of your thrust structure or something? – Yeah, there’s all sorts
of different regimes. – Just expand that surface
area out a little bit more. – I mean, different solutions
for different courses. Maybe, if you had a
shallower angle of attack, then those would be more effective. But, our whole concept here
is to keep the stages cool and out of all the wind as possible. – So, as far as your flight
corridor; is it better for you guys to come in longer, like, steeper like that, or straight down? – It’s really about angle of attack. That’s what we want to try and maintain. – So, what we can look
forward to in 2020 would be: we’re going to be looking
for more recovery hardware, more flights. – Double the flight rate. – Double the flight rate, once a month?
– Yup, yup. – Wow, launches out of here. – Yup, launch out of here. – (laughs) From right here. – Yeah, in this flying bucket. – We won’t want to be right
here when that happens. And then, anything else you guys are really looking forward to in 2020? – Photon. You know, next year is a big
year of the satellite, for us. You know, I’m super pumped
about photon, I think that solves a lot of
problems for the industry, and really lowers the
boundaries and barriers for people to put stuff on orbit. You know, science, and
education, commercial business, you know, it just removes all
of the fuss, that’s in space. So, that’ll be a big
year for us next year, the first photon mission. And, we’ll see, who knows, we might even skid something to the moon. – I hope so.
– We’ll see how it goes. – That’s amazing, well thank you so much for your time
– Thanks, Tim! – and congratulations on this
wonderful new launch complex! – Thanks Tim, appreciate it.
– Until next time. (upbeat music) Isn’t Peter just awesome? Thanks to the folks at Rocket
Lab for giving me some time with Peter and letting me pick his brain. That stuff is just super fun to me. And, I owe an even bigger
thanks to my Patreon supporters for helping me be able to get myself and my camera guy, Michael,
out there to be able to shoot this kind of awesome stuff. If you want to help me
continue to do what I do, please consider becoming
a Patreon supporter by going to And, while you’re online,
be sure and check out
for limited edition merch. Now, do notice the merchandise
is getting awesome. We have, you know, they’re
all hand-screen printed, hand-sewn on patches, custom neck labels, all these really cool things,
and these awesome designs are limited run, so if you like something, you better grab it now, because there’s a good chance it won’t be
there next time you click on the website, and I
guess you can even grab what’s apparently one of
Elon Musk’s favorite shirts, the Full Flow Staged
Combustion Cycle shirt. We also have that as a
hoodie version as well, just in time for the cold weather. So, get in there, while you can, and get some awesome
merchandise for yourself. That’s Thanks everybody, that’s
gonna do it for me. I’m Tim Dodd, The Everyday Astronaut. Bringing space down to
earth, for everyday people. (upbeat music)

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