Rocket Lab, one of the most successful space start-ups since SpaceX, launched its Electron rocket for the first time Tuesday evening from NASA’s Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.
The Electron rocket blasted off from a refurbished launchpad at about 6 p.m. and could be seen from the D.C. metropolitan area. The company, based in California, had previously launched rockets from its facility in New Zealand, but it hopes to fly more frequently from the United States.
The Wallops facility is near Chincoteague and has been around for decades. In addition to Rocket Lab, it is home to Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket, which flies cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station.
A few years ago, Rocket Lab moved in, adding a commercial company to what Virginia hopes will become a flourishing roster of space companies operating at the site. The company looked at other sites in the United States, such as Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, but ultimately chose Wallops in part because of its ability to expand its operations there.
“KSC is an amazing range, but I think everybody has to agree, it’s pretty busy,” Peter Beck, the chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a call with reporters last year. “Whereas we can achieve almost the same trajectories out of Virginia here. The range is not nearly as busy, and there’s a lot of room to grow.”
With its small size, just under 60 feet tall, Electron is designed to carry small satellites on short notice. That is a capability that is of particular interest to the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community. It is another reason that Rocket Lab chose Wallops; it’s only a little over a three-hour drive from Washington.
Tuesday’s launch was delayed from December. The rocket carried three satellites manufactured by HawkEye 360, a Herndon, Va.-based company that operates satellites able to detect radio frequencies. A little over an hour after launch the company said that the satellites had successfully deployed.
In addition to launching Electron, the company plans to fly its much larger Neutron rocket from Wallops. That rocket is intended to be reusable – after launching to space it would turn around and fly back to its launchpad. Beck said the company would attempt to land Neutron on its first flight, now scheduled for sometime in 2024.