Citing coronavirus concerns, Rocket Lab pauses launch operations

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This aerial view of Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand earlier this year shows an Electron rocket on one launch pad, and the site’s second launch pad under construction. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab says it has paused launch operations after the government of New Zealand this week ordered most businesses closed and people to stay at home in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The company, which is headquartered in Southern California and launches rockets from New Zealand, said Tuesday that it has paused launch preparations for its next mission, which was previously scheduled for liftoff March 30.

Officials made the decision “to protect the health and safety of Rocket Lab team members, our families, and the wider community” amid the coronavirus pandemic, the company said in a statement.

The government of New Zealand announced Monday that the country’s response to the threat from the COVID-19 viral disease would be elevated to “Level 4,” which requires most businesses to close and people to stay at home. The order will be in place for at least four weeks, the government said.

“We commend the government for taking this drastic but necessary step to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Rocket Lab said.

New Zealand is one of numerous countries to implement such measures in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus. As of Thursday, the country’s health ministry reported 338 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19.

The next mission of Rocket Lab’s Electron small satellite launcher is slated to carry five small satellites into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office, NASA and the University of New South Wales in Australia. The mission will mark the 12th flight of an Electron rocket since its debut in 2017.

Rocket Lab named the mission “Don’t Stop Me Now,” in honor of a company board member and avid band of the rock group Queen who recently died.

“We have the full support of our customers in pausing operations and we are grateful for their understanding in these challenging times,” Rocket Lab said in a statement. “We are working with the government, health officials, and our customers to determine when launch operations can resume.”

Rocket Lab’s primary launch site is located on Mahia Peninsula, a region on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The commercial space company developed a privately-owned spaceport at the site, which is home to one operational launch pad and another under construction.

Made of carbon composite materials, the two-stage Electron rocket stands around 55 feet (17 meters) tall. It’s design to loft light payloads into orbit, such as microsatellites and CubeSats.

“The launch vehicle and ground systems will remain in a state of readiness for launch as the evolving situation allows it,” Rocket Lab said. “The majority of our team is working from home with the exception of a few essential personnel who are monitoring and maintaining critical systems.”

The mission patch for Rocket Lab’s next launch, which has been named “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab says it will be ready to rapidly resume launch operations once government officials give the all-clear.

“In the days, weeks, and months to come, we’ll be following the advice of the government and health authorities to protect our teams in the United States and New Zealand,” the company said.

“In recent years, we have placed an increased emphasis on delivering responsive launch capability for our customers, which means having launch vehicles and pads ready for rapid call-up launch capability,” Rocket Lab said. “As a result of this approach, we’re fortunate to have enough launch vehicles ready that we can effectively manage a pause in production and still have vehicles available for launch as soon as conditions allow.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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