Three years ago if Rocket Lab could have imagined 10 successful commercial launches out of 11, company founder Peter Beck would have taken it.
Yesterday's loss of the its Electron vehicle, and most importantly its clients' valuable cargo, means a pause in operations during an extensive investigation.
Beck says it's much too early to tell what caused the loss of the vehicle which data showed was sliding backwards about three minutes into its second-stage burn.
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But it's likely the fault was ''baked in'' to the vehicle months ago during the manufacturing process, he said.
''The vehicle was built many months ago and these are the kind of things that occur most likely during the production process or it's something that wasn't caught. Whatever occurred was something that was baked in.''
Some components would have been made six months ago and although the launch was abruptly moved forward to avoid bad weather this week, Beck firmly rejected any suggestion ''go fever'' played a role.
''No - not all. The vehicle was built months before and flying it is purely operational,'' he said.
He said the success of the programme had exceeded his own expectations to date and been more successful than operators such as Space X.
While its first test flight was terminated after reaching space but before reaching orbit, Rocket Lab had a great run of one successful orbital test and 10 commercial flights where 53 small satellites have been deployed into low-earth orbit.
''We had 11 successful launches and we had never failed to deliver a customer to orbit. This is part of the industry - there's not a launch vehicle in history that hasn't had a bad day,'' he said.
''This is not the flight we wanted but the flight we expect to get one day - it's part of the business.''
A 'graceful failure'
A multi-faceted investigation is underway with the United States' Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to determine why the US7.5 million (NZ$11.5m) launch failed. Beck said the Electron was heavily monitored by instruments and because it had failed ''gracefully'' (in other words it didn't blow up) there were tens of thousands of data channels that were intact and available to analyse.
''The good news is that we had huge amounts of data. Sometimes in this industry there's kind of an abrupt end - everything is fine and then it's not and it's very hard to piece together what happened but this wasn't the case for us.''
A brief statement about today's mission from our founder and CEO, Peter Beck. pic.twitter.com/QUShtzp7J0— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) July 5, 2020
He said the investigation would follow a ''standard'' process and it was not known how long it would take. This could interfere with launch schedules for the firm which promotes itself as being nimble and able to launch quickly from its Mahai site, where a second pad is nearing completion, and from a new pad in Wallops, Virginia where it hopes to launch from next month.
''It really depends on what we find. If it's a relatively simple issue that we can mitigate quickly like a production issue then we should be able to mitigate quickly and get back on the pad.''
If it is something that was very complex and requires design changes the timeline would get extended.
Beck said Rocket Lab was now looking for the ''smoking gun''.
However, there would be equal or more time spent on validating what wasn't the problem.
''It's great if you find what you believe is the root cause but that doesn't mean it's over.
If we get confident quickly then it might be weeks but if it's a difficult one that takes a lot of design changes then you're talking months but it's way too early.''
While Rocket Lab ''wouldn't generally'' insure its 17m tall Electron, its clients would insure their satellites.
Japanese camera company Canon had onboard a satellite capable of spotting objects on the ground as small as about 90cm. The CE-SAT-1B was to be Canon's second satellite in orbit and was arranged by Spaceflight, a Seattle-based rideshare launch broker.
"We are of course disappointed, while at the same time are always aware that launch failures are part of the business of space," Spaceflight said on its website.
"We will work closely with Rocket Lab and our customer Canon Electronics who had their CE-SAT-IB imaging satellite onboard this mission to figure out the next steps, but we are undeterred in our resolve to get our customers to space.
"We have faith in all our launch vehicles, including Electron, and look forward to many more successful launches with them," Spaceflight said before signing off: ''Onward''.
San Francisco-based Planet had five SuperDove Earth observation nanosatellites the size of shoebox on board.
"While it's never the outcome that we hope for, the risk of launch failure is one Planet is always prepared for," Planet said on its website.
''We have full faith that Rocket Lab will be able to bounce back from today's failure in no time, and we look forward to flying on the Electron again.''
The other payload on Rocket Lab's failed launch was Faraday 1, a CubeSat from the British company, In-Space Missions. The 6U CubeSat measures about the size of a small briefcase, and is the first in a series of smallsats planned by In-Space Missions.
Surprise! We’ve brought launch forward by a day as the weather is terrible through most of next week. We’re now targeting 21:13, 4 July UTC for the #PicsOrItDidntHappen mission. Think good weather thoughts for us!— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) July 4, 2020
NZT | 09:13 (05 July)
PT | 14:13 (04 July)
ET | 17:13 (04 July) pic.twitter.com/crMGrsbdV8
"The In-Space team is absolutely gutted by this news," the company tweeted. "Two years of hard work from an incredibly committed group of brilliant engineers up in smoke. It really was a very cool little spacecraft," said Doug Liddle, chief executive and founder of the Hampshire company
"Many of our team have been involved in previous space missions, so we're fully aware of the fragile nature of launches. However, this knowledge and experience doesn't make this failed mission any easier to accept.''
Beck said he was heartened by clients' responses.
''This industry is incredibly difficult - every time you go to space everybody appreciates there's risks that come along with that. Most of those customers will have experienced a launch failure in their time as well.''
Programme grounded for now
Beck said Rocket Lab won't launch another vehicle until it was understood the issues and fixed them.
''We would never put our customers' payload at that risk - talk about damaging reputation that would be the way to do it. We won't put a nother vehicle in the sky until we're absolutely confident we understood what that issue is and have mitigated it.''
Putting the problem right - and being upfront along the way - was crucial in retaining trust and confidence.
''As long as we recover quickly from this I don't think there'll be any lasting reputational damage. If anything if we provide the customers the type of feedback and transparency we have to date it could strengthen our position.''
Work began on finding the problem immediately after the failure and staff had worked overnight.
''We're incredibly resilient over here. We take the wins and take the losses. Right now it's very much finding the issue and getting back to flight - there's no time to cry into your cornflakes.''