‘Complete Success’: Rocket Lab’s booster recovery is a big step towards reusability

Rocket Lab has successfully recovered the first stage of an Electron launch vehicle after it made a controlled splashdown in the Atlantic, marking a major milestone in the company’s quest for a reusable rocket. CEO Peter Beck, speaking to press shortly after the operation, called the mission “a complete success” — and it raised $286,092 for charity to boot.

This was the first major test of Rocket Lab’s improved Electron, which has a modified interstage (above the first stage booster but below the second stage, which takes the payload into orbit) that allows the booster to make a controlled descent after detaching.

The plan for the future is to have a helicopter catch the booster in mid-air, but this first time the team decided to let it splash down first. “Pulling rockets out of the ocean is just not fun,” Beck noted.

Before the mission even starts, a general idea of the descent area is already known, since the trajectory of the rocket has been carefully planned and the weather monitored closely. And as the launch proceeds, the projected descent area becomes more and more clear based on information streamed from the rocket itself.

“Downrange we’ll have a ship and a helicopter based on the ship. It’ll take off at the same time as the rocket and hover over the predicted reentry point,” explained Beck. “The moment we hand over to stage one, it is telemetrying its predicted impact point in real time. The whole time there’s sort of a real time feedback loop.”

He pointed out that, should something go wrong with the launch, the helicopter is not at risk of being struck by debris going 900 miles per hour, since the trajectory be completely different in that case.

After the second stage detached, the first began its descent, hitting about mach 2 before deploying its pilot chute, then a drogue chute for about a minute to get its speed down, then the main glider chute under which it would normally cruise along a predictable path until being picked up by the helicopter. In this case it was allowed to splash down, however, “within a few miles” of the predicted impact zone. It was going about 9 meters per second, or 20 miles per hour, when it hit the water.

The Electron first stage appears to be in good condition after recovery.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

Beck was back at mission control, and happy to be so, he said. “Based on the state of the sea, I’m glad I wasn’t out on the boat. The trip back was on 5-meter swells. I don’t have particularly strong sea legs myself,” he admitted. The descending stage was sending back sparse but accurate telemetry, however, which he was watching as the second stage continued its journey. “It felt like cheating, to take your eyes off the ascent to watch the reentry.”

(He added that “if you were in the room, you’d probably have described me as a giggling schoolboy.” Another Rocket Lab representative on the call confirmed this assessment.)

The recovery ship collected the booster shortly after splashdown and engineers are even now tearing it apart to examine the various parts for wear and damage. “The reentry environments exceed the ascent environments,” Beck explained, meaning that the hardware faces different and more severe conditions in its semi-controlled descent than in the meticulously planned launch.

Although they hope to requalify some components for flight, the engines and a few other parts will not live to launch another day. “It’d be pretty unfair on the engines given the ride they had. It got pretty roasty down there,” Beck said.

Rocket Lab's Return to Sender mission takes off.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

That’s all part of the plan, though: using data from this descent the first stage’s heat shield and components will be modified and reinforced to better cope with the rigors of reentry. “We’ll do engines in the future,” Beck said. “The goal is to take the whole stage, charge it up, and fly it again.”

Simple to propose, but a complex task in that every component must be checked and recertified. But given this can be done in parallel with the main Electron production line — which Beck said is turning out a launch vehicle every 30 days and getting faster every month — it should lead to a substantial increase to the number of rockets the company has on hand.

The cost impact of recovery, flying recertified hardware, and other aspects of this are still very much in flux, Beck emphasized. “But the majority of the cost of building an Electron is the stage one, so if you can change that, you can change the economics of the vehicle. It would be nice to have it all figured out next year but it’s very possible it won’t be,” he said.

One thing seems certain, though: reusable rockets are clearly the future if cost is a factor at all.

The launch was a great success in another measure as well: Among its numerous deployments was a 3D printed gnome whose ride was paid for by gaming giant Valve Software founder Gabe Newell . He promised to donate a dollar to Starship Children’s Hospital for every view on the launch’s live stream, and that added up to $286,092.

Gnome Chompski, as he’s called, probably burned up by now, but had a brief and exciting life in space, producing some memorable photos.

A 3D printed gnome in space after being launched on a Rocket Lab rocket.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

Discord is close to closing a round that would value the company at up to $7B

Discord, the communications service that’s become the 21st century’s answer to MUD rooms, is close to closing a new round of financing that would value the company at up to $7 billion, according to sources with knowledge of the round.

The new funding comes just months after a $100 million investment that gave the company a $3.5 billion valuation. Discord’s doubling in corporate value comes as the persistent, inept, American response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues to accelerate the adoption and growth of businesses creating virtual social networking opportunities.

Those opportunities are apparent in Discord’s explosive growth. Monthly active users have almost doubled to 120 million this year and the company has seen 800,000 downloads a day thanks, in part, to the wildly popular game Among Us (which received a ringing endorsement from the popular congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez).

Discord built its initial growth on the back of the gaming industry and the rise of multi-player, multi-platform games that supplanted earlier social networks as the online town square for a generation of young gamers (whose numbers globally now spiral north of several billion).

But, as the company’s founders noted when they announced their last round of financing, the Discord use case has extended far beyond the gaming community.

“It turns out that, for a lot of you, it wasn’t just about video games anymore,” wrote co-founders Jason Citron and Stanislav Vishnevskiy in a July blog post announcing the latest financing.

The two men frame their company as “a place designed to hang out and talk in the comfort of your own communities and friends.” Discord, they say, is “a place to have genuine conversations and spend quality time with people, whether catching up, learning something or sharing ideas.”

If that sounds familiar to some of the internet’s earliest users, that’s because it is. Back in the dawn of the world wide web, multi-user dungeons (MUD) provided ways for practitioners of any number of sub cultures to find each other online and chat about whatever tickled their collective fancy.

As the web evolved, so did the number of places and spaces for these conversations to happen. Now there are multivariate ways for users to find each other within the web, but Discord seems to have risen above most of the rest.

As analyst John Koetsier noted in Forbes back in 2019, there were already 250 million Discord users sending 315 million messages a day. Those are the company’s pre-pandemic numbers — and they’re impressive by any standards.

As with any platform that has become popular on the web, Discord isn’t without its underbelly. Three years ago, the company tried to boot a number of its most racist users, but their ability to use the platform to disseminate hate speech has stubbornly persisted.

Until mid-2019, white nationalists were comfortable enough using the service to warrant a shoutout from Daily Stormer founder, Andrew Anglin, who urged his fellow travelers to stop using the service.

“Discord is always on and always present among these groups on the far-right,” Joan Donovan, the lead researcher on media manipulation at the Data & Society Research Institute, told Slate in 2018. “It’s the place where they do most of the organizing of doxing and harassment campaigns.”

To date, Discord has raised $379.3 million, according to Crunchbase, from an investor group that includes Greylock, Index Ventures, Spark Capital, Tencent and Benchmark.

In addition to the cash it raised earlier this year, Discord emphasized a new user experience and added video functionality so that users could communicate more readily (and so the company could compete with Zoom). There are templates available to help users create servers, and the company has increased its voice and video capacity by 200%.

As part of this new focus on product, Discord has launched what it calls a “Safety Center” that clearly defines the company’s rules and regulations and what actions users can take to monitor and manage their use of service for hate speech and abuse.

“We will continue to take decisive action against white supremacists, racists and others who seek to use Discord for evil,” the founders wrote in June.

As we reported at the time, Index Ventures co-founder Danny Rimer, who led the investor group that backed Discord’s latest $100 million cash infusion, was an advocate for the company’s expanded vision for itself.

“I believe Discord is the future of platforms because it demonstrates how a responsibly curated site can provide a safe space for people with shared interests,” Rimer wrote in a statement. “Rather than throwing raw content at you, like Facebook, it provides a shared experience for you and your friends. We’ll come to appreciate that Discord does for social conversation what Slack has done for professional conversation.”

Apparently, investors are doubling down on that assessment.