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(Tribune News Service) — SpaceX may shine when it comes to reusable rocket plans, but the launch services provider Rocket Lab is the first to catch one of its boosters with a helicopter.

The Long Beach, Calif.-based company founded in 2006 that launches its small Electron rockets from New Zealand, was able to pull off the feat during a launch dubbed “There and Back Again” on Tuesday.

“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck in a press release. “A tremendous number of factors have to align and many systems have to work together flawlessly, so I am incredibly proud of the stellar efforts of our recovery team and all of our engineers who made this mission and our first catch a success.”

It’s the 26th successful launch for the company since 2018 with the primary goal of deploying 34 satellites to orbit. Electron rockets have now sent 146 satellites total into space. It took off from Pad A at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 10:49 a.m. local time deploying satellites for Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Spaceflight, and Unseenlabs.

The secondary goal was a midair capture of the Electron booster, which used a parachute to slow its descent. A Sikorsky S-92 helicopter rendezvoused with the floating stage at 6,500 feet altitude using a hook on a long line to snag the parachute line.

While the initial catch of the Electron booster was a success, the helicopter pilot decided to offload the stage for safety reasons, but it still made what the company called a successful splashdown. It was then loaded onto a recovery vessel to determine if it can be used for reflight as planned.

Rocket Lab had previously recovered boosters on three other missions through parachute assist landings in the ocean. Future missions will continue efforts to capture the stage via helicopter, thus avoiding the water landing.

“From here we’ll assess the stage and determine what changes we might want to make to the system and procedures for the next helicopter catch and eventual reflight,” Beck said.

The goal just like SpaceX, is to reuse its boosters to reduce costs and increase the frequency of launches.

Since the first successful Falcon 1 launch in 2008, the Elon Musk company has had 155 launches and been able to recover 117 of its boosters among Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. It’s also recycled boosters 94 times, some used on more than 10 launches. Its current record set on March 19 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station is 12 launches for one booster.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is also embraced reusability, first with its space tourism New Shepard rockets, but also for its massive New Glenn rockets in production on the Space Coast that could see their first launch in 2023.

©2022 Orlando Sentinel.

Visit orlandosentinel.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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