Independent contractor to blame for Electron rocket failure
An internal review of Rocket Lab‘s May 25, 2017, test flight of an Electron rocket from its Mahia, New Zealand, launch site determined that the vehicle was terminated due to an issue with an independent contractor’s ground equipment. A statement issued by the company’s investigation board announced the incident’s root causes and corrective actions.
Making it to space, not to orbit
The investigating team determined that the mission, dubbed It’s a Test, achieved 140 miles (224 km) in altitude and four minutes of flight time. The vehicle was terminated due to a data loss time-out. This resulted from an improper configuration of telemetry equipment owned and operated by a third-party contractor supporting Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1.
“The equipment lost contact with the rocket temporarily and, according to standard operating procedures, range safety officials terminated the flight,” the report stated. “Data, including that from Rocket Lab’s own telemetry equipment, confirmed the rocket was following a nominal trajectory and the vehicle was performing as planned at the time of termination.”
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for licensing Electron rocket launches, has overseen Rocket Lab’s investigation and will review its findings.
Rocket Lab’s engineers have spent the last two months reviewing over 25,000 channels of data and working through a fault-tree analysis to evaluate all factors that might have affected the launch. In addition to the data review, the investigation also involved extensive testing at the company’s facilities in California and New Zealand.
“We have demonstrated Electron was following its nominal trajectory and was on course to reach orbit,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO. “While it was disappointing to see the flight terminated in essence due to an incorrect tick box. We can say we tested nearly everything, including the flight termination system.”
Rocket Lab’s telemetry systems indicated that Electron was ready to go ahead of the test flight.
“The call to terminate a launch would be tough for anyone, and we appreciated the professionalism of the flight safety officials involved,” Beck said.
Termination of the flight occurred after the failure of a key piece of equipment that safety officials use to translate radio signals into data to track vehicle performance. A contractor did not enable “forward error correction” (sending redundant or duplicate characters to verify data integrity) on this third-party device. This corrupted the position data received from the rocket.
Rocket Lab’s own equipment did not suffer a similar data loss during launch. The company also confirmed the cause by replaying raw radio-frequency data recorded on launch day through correctly configured equipment.
Rocket lab said that the fix for the issue is simple and corrective procedures to prevent a similar issue in future have been put in place. No major changes to the Electron launch vehicle are required.
Not giving up
“We were delighted with the amount of data we were able to collect during an exceptional first test launch,” Beck told the New Zealand Herald. “We’re not going to throw our contractors under a bus. It’s not our style.”
The contractor in question will continue to support Rocket Lab on subsequent flights.
Moving forward, Rocket Lab authorized production of four additional launch vehicles for commercial operations. The second Electron rocket, dubbed Still Testing, is undergoing final preparations before it will be shipped to Mahia.
Video courtesy of Rocket Lab
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.