Rocket Lab's 20th Electron mission ends with second stage failure

It's the second failure in the space of a year.

Rocket Lab, YouTube

Rocket Lab has suffered its second launch failure in the space of a year. The company said its 20th Electron mission ("Running out of Toes") suffered an "anomaly" shortly after the second stage ignition, losing both the vehicle and BlackSky's Earth observation satellite payloads. Staff are still investigating the cause, although footage (below) suggests the second stage might have shut down as part of an automated failure response.

The first stage splashed down in the ocean as expected, and Rocket Lab hoped to recover the vehicle. The second stage had continued along its predicted flight corridor and didn't pose a risk to anyone.

CEO Peter Beck apologized to BlackSky and promised Rocket Lab would pinpoint the cause. The team planned to be "safely back on the pad" as soon as it could, he said. As usual, Rocket lab has multiple vehicles in production and might not face a lengthy delay. It took just several weeks for Rocket Lab to resume flight after its July 2020 failure.

Rocket Lab has mostly been successful so far, with 17 of its missions reaching orbit. This latest issue won't help the company in the short term, though, and it's a reminder that spaceflight startups tend to run into problems early on regardless of their engineering skills — SpaceX took years to iron out the flaws in its reusable rocketry, and there were months of botched launches before Starship landed in one piece just days ago. It may take further refinement before Rocket Lab can put its difficulties firmly in the past.