The launch company Rocket Lab has funny names for their missions. The first, in May, was called "It's a test" (it was). When the staff debated how to call the second launch of their tiny electronic rocket, so dimensioned (and priced) specifically to transport small satellites into space, they said, "Well, we're still testing, right?"  They were. And so, "Still Testing" became the name of the second Rocket Lab release, which took place on January 20, at approximately 8:45 p.m. Eastern time. In December, the company canceled several attempts before reprogramming the launch window for 2018. The real-life rocket took off from the Mahia peninsula in New Zealand, headed to a place with an even better view.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the launch (or any test launch, for that matter), the rocket carried real loads for real customers: three small satellites, one for a company that images the Earth and two for one that monitors weather and maritime traffic. But why on Earth would a satellite company choose a rocket in progress when there are so many reliable launchers out there? After all, even established rockets sometimes explode.
The short answer is that smallsats, which the electron was built to transport exclusively, are by nature expendable. The makers of Smallsat such as Planet and Spire, the two clients in this mission, have populations of genetically similar orbiters that are constantly growing. So lose one or two on a test flight less than successful? Probably worth the risk. Smallsat companies are willing to put their hardware on this particular takeoff line because the electron is ready to be the first commercially-reserved rocket designed specifically for small payloads, which normally have to be loaded on large, expensive rockets with large payloads. costly ones that do not launch frequently enough and do not always target their orbit of choice. In the next decade, 3,483 small satellites (between 1 and 100 kilograms) will go into space, generating just over $ 2 billion in launch revenue, according to the report Small Satellite Markets, 4th edition that investigates and consultation firm Northern Sky Research launched last month. In this future world in which thousands of smallsats provide environmental, economic and even political intelligence, as well as internet that covers the Earth, the test steps needed to get into space quickly, economically and accurately seem to justify the risk not only of Planet and needle, but, perhaps, for you and me.
But boy, was there a risk? While Rocket Lab's first electron did not explode and hit space, and therefore gets at least an A- for its first attempt, "It's a Test" did not reach orbit. After an investigation, Rocket Lab determined that, four minutes after takeoff, the ground crew (provided by a third party) stopped talking temporarily with the rocket. When communication is interrupted, the official Procedures require security officers to stop the flight. And so they did …
But the rocket itself, according to the same investigation, was solid, so the company went on a trial delivery. "It really is the next logical step," says Peter Beck, founder of Rocket Lab.
Beck seems incredibly logical about the risks his young company runs. When asked about his feelings about the release of real things in "Still Testing," he replied that doing so involved extra real tasks. "I'm not sure if you can get extra nervous or very excited," he said. That feeling fits the pragmatic names of the releases. And those fit with the general pragmatic streak of the New Zealanders, says Beck (cites some of the names of the country to flow water: "River One", "River Two", "River Three").
For its part, Planet and Spire are here for that pointless. Planet already has around 200 satellites in orbit, so adding one to its flock of so-called "Doves" would be good but not critical . In addition, says Mike Safyan, launch director of Planet, "we chose one that we would not miss too much": a satellite called Pioneer. It has a double meaning, says Safyan. First, it is a tribute to the old NASA missions, on whose shoulders they are standing.
Second meaning: They are pioneers. "There is this new spatial wave that Planet is very at the forefront and Rocket Lab is very at the forefront," says Safyan.
This is what the avant-garde looks like, by the way: you can reserve space online in an Electron rocket, simply click on the size of your smallsat! In the same basic way you would book a bunk on Airbnb.
Spire, too. Jenny Barna met Peter Beck before having her current job, as launch director at Spire, whose satellites are aimed at tracking aeronautical, nautical, and weather traffic. days in SSL, which makes spacecraft and communications systems, a co-worker invited her to a presentation that Beck giving on the site. He heard Beck describe the technology of Rocket Lab, and his vision of a vehicle that provided frequent and affordable launches just for small boys, in an industry that caters to big sats and makes small passengers second class, and she was intrigued. "I remember being there thinking about how lucky I am to work in this industry right now," he says. And after moving to Spire, he led the company to register as one of Rocket Lab's first customers. He is currently hired up to 12 launches.
That's a lot! But Spire has to launch a lot . The company wants to have access to the space every month, so they can produce their satellites in small batches, send them, iterate them and launch the next generation. So far, Spire has launched 40 satellites. They have done it in the rockets of Russia (Soyuz and Dnepr), Japan (H-IIB) and India (PSLV), and the rockets of Orbital (Antares) and ULA (Atlas V) of the USA. UU And now, they will travel with Rocket Lab, choosing a rocket the size of their own satellites.
But that does not mean they will alone use Rocket Lab. Or Orbital OR ULA. They plan to keep their eggs distributed, partly because even when it is not just a test, the rockets still explode, the eggs break along with them. "It's just part of the industry," says Barna.
When Barna spoke of "Still Testing" a few days before the initial launch window, it was straightforward about the possibility that this particular rocket would not carry eggs safely into space. "We know that a million things have to work perfectly for this to be successful," he said. "We hope they make history."
They did this, and deployed the payload of three satellites in orbit. And pending the analysis of this seemingly successful test, Rocket Lab will skip its third planned test and jump directly into official operations in early 2018. "We have many customers that need to go into orbit," says Beck.  Suggestion for the name of the third flight: "This is not a test".