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Rocket Lab, a prolific launch company that routinely blasts its towering Electron rockets out of New Zealand, conducted its first liftoff from US soil on Tuesday.
The mission, nicknamed “Virginia is for Launch Lovers,” took off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s northern coast at 6 p.m. ET. The launch of the 60-foot (18.3-meter) rocket delivered three small satellites to orbit for the Earth-imaging company HawkEye 360, which uses a network of spacecraft to pinpoint radio frequencies on Earth in support of military and business projects.
Rocket Lab is among the most successful aerospace start-ups of the modern era. Unlike Elon Musk’s even more prolific rocket company, SpaceX, which builds larger rockets capable of hauling tens of thousands of pounds to orbit, Rocket Lab builds lightweight launch vehicles designed solely to lift small satellites — as compact as a loaf of bread or a refrigerator — to space.
Though the company has been headquartered in the United States since its inception, all of its prior launches have taken place at a pad near Ahuriri Point, located on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island.
But Rocket Lab has sought for years to bring some of its launch operations stateside, in part so that it can provide services to the US government and military, which make up a lucrative slice of the global launch business customer base.
The NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island in Virginia’s Accomack County is one of the oldest launch sites in the world. The first rocket flight took off from the site in 1945, before the creation of the space agency. More recently, the facility has been home to Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket, which launches cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station.
Before selecting Wallops as its second launch location, officials at Rocket Lab did evaluate whether to move into one of the United States’ other prime launch locations, including Florida’s Space Coast, the busiest launch port in the nation.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told the press in 2018, when Rocket Lab chose Virginia as its launch destination, that the state was the obvious choice because it allowed the company to rapidly build up its infrastructure.
The company also chose to set up production of a larger rocket it has in its development pipeline, called the Neutron. Rocket Lab is setting up a manufacturing complex in close proximity to the launch pad at Wallops.
“Neutron is a new generation of rocket that will advance the way space is accessed, and Virginia makes perfect sense as a significant site for Neutron’s early development,” Beck said in a February 2022 statement. “Its position on the eastern seaboard is the ideal location to support both Neutron’s expected frequent launch cadence and the rocket’s return-to-Earth capability of landing back at its launch site after lift-off.”
Rocket Lab has made headlines for its attempts to reuse its first-stage rocket boosters, the largest part of the spacecraft that gives the initial burst of thrust at liftoff. Rather than attempting to steer the rocket to a pinpoint landing on the ground, as SpaceX does with its Falcon vehicles, Rocket Lab is aiming to figure out how to snag its boosters mid-air using a hook-wielding helicopter.