Rocket Lab launch preparations continue despite coronavirus travel restrictions

Space

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab is continuing with preparations for a launch later this month despite the coronavirus pandemic, although another small launch company’s plans for a launch this month remain unclear.

Rocket Lab spokesperson Morgan Bailey said March 19 that the company was still planning to launch an Electron rocket from New Zealand later this month. The launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than March 30, a few days later originally announced.

That mission, called “Don’t Stop Me Now” by the company, will carry three payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office. It will also place into orbit ANDESITE, a cubesat built by students at Boston University and whose launch is being provided by NASA, as well as a cubesat from the University of New South Wales in Australia.

The launch is proceeding despite an order by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to close the country’s borders to those who are not citizens or residents of the country, effective March 20. The move is intended to stem the growth of cases of the coronavirus disease COVID-19, which reached 39 in New Zealand as of March 20.

Bailey said the launch teams, as well as all the payloads for the mission, are already at the company’s Launch Complex 1. Payload integration and a wet dress rehearsal of the rocket are scheduled for early next week.

Rocket Lab hasn’t disclosed if the pandemic and restrictions on travel will affect future launches, either in New Zealand or the United States. The company had been planning its first Electron launch from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia, for the second quarter of this year.

The status of another potential launch of a small launch vehicle remains uncertain. Astra requested airspace restrictions and ocean hazard zones for a launch between March 23 and March 27 from the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska on Kodiak Island. A launch window is open each day from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Eastern.

“Since the second launch campaign of the DARPA Launch Challenge did not materialize, Astra has requested to conduct the same flight without DARPA sponsorship within the requested March window,” a memo from the Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which operates the launch site, states. That memo is included in a U.S. Coast Guard “Local Notice to Mariners” report published March 18.

The Federal Aviation Administration has published a Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM, for launch activities from that site for March 24 and 25. An earlier NOTAM for a March 23 launch was no longer active as of March 19.

Astra has not commented on its launch plans publicly, and the company did not respond to requests for comment March 19. The company has made no public announcements since its last launch attempt at the end of the DARPA Launch Challenge was scrubbed March 2 because of what the company called “off-nominal” data from the vehicle detected less than a minute before scheduled liftoff.

At the time of that scrub, Astra projected trying again later in the month. “That is probably not a day or two. It’s more like a week or two,” Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, said in a post-scrub media teleconference of the timeframe of the next launch. “It’s certainly not a month or two.” That would also allow the company to replace the DARPA-supplied payload with one from an unidentified customer.

Astra’s plans may be complicated by travel restrictions in California. The company’s headquarters, which includes a launch control center, is in Alameda, California, a city located in one of the six San Francisco Bay Area counties that instituted “shelter in place” restrictions March 17 to limit the spread of COVID-19. That allowed only “essential” businesses to continue operations.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order March 19 extending those restrictions statewide, effective immediately. That order does allow work to continue at companies considered part of “federal critical infrastructure sectors.” One of those sectors, “critical manufacturing,” includes aerospace products and parts manufacturing.

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