A congressional memo says Rocket Lab “misrepresented” its neutron launch readiness

Image credits: NASA

An internal congressional memo seen by TechCrunch casts doubt on Rocket Lab's claim that its neutron rocket will be ready for launch in time to meet a critical deadline for the Space Force's decade.

“In light of public reports and media pressure, Rocket Lab has escalated its campaign to discredit its launch readiness in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage over incumbents and other new entrants by joining Phase 3 of NSSL Lane 1 at the first opportunity in 2024,” says the memo seen by On it TechCrunch. “Public records and information available to staff confirm that Neutron does not have a reliable launch path by 12/15/2024.”

Rocket Lab declined to comment for this story.

Such memoranda are used to inform congressional officials of specific issues and make recommendations on proposed actions. That memo, written by congressional staff and distributed Wednesday to other offices, including those on the Senate Armed Services Committee, states that Rocket Lab “repeatedly assured” those staffers that the company has a reliable path to launch by December 15.

That's the date on which the Space Force's Space Systems Command said launch service providers must be flight-ready in order to qualify for launch contracts under a program called National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase III. It said It is worth several billion dollars to cover launches from 2025 through 2034.

In response to industry feedback, Space Systems Command changed its procurement strategy for the next batch of National Security launch contracts to accommodate new launch service providers. Under the new strategy, contracts are divided into two groups: Track 1 is for newer missiles, while Track 2 is for established providers that can meet the full range of mission requirements.

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While Rocket Lab has never publicly confirmed that it has submitted a bid under Lane 1, in an earnings call on Tuesday, CEO Peter Beck indicated that the company was striving to complete development of the Neutron by the end of this year in order to meet that deadline: “We said “We're tracking this Track 1 very closely and we've spent a lot of time with the Space Force defending this Track 1.” “That's why we're doing everything we can to launch the car this year, because it's a gateway on the ramp to Track 1.”

As Beck noted, providers who did not meet this year's readiness date will have another opportunity to bid on contracts the following year.

Neutron is Rocket Lab's medium-lift vehicle, being added as a complement to its successful small Electron rocket. The Neutron will be powered by a new engine called the Archimedes, and the company aims to begin hot-fire tests of this engine around March; Beck said the company will know more about how close it is to the timeline “once Archimedes breathes fire” during testing.

Doubts surrounding Archimedes' hot-fire tests are the “biggest problem” with Rocket Lab's claims, the memo says.

Beyond actual testing of the rocket, much of the schedule depends on completing the launch pad and other infrastructure at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, which is being built by a government agency, the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority. the Latest RFP Issued by that agency for launch infrastructure, the completion date is expected to be November 29, 2024, which leaves less than two weeks until the launch deadline. It is unclear whether any additional RFPs are forthcoming or when the RFP schedule will be finalized. VCSFA did not respond to TechCrunch's request for comment by press time.

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On the company's earnings call, analysts also asked Beck about the RFP, and he pointed to Rocket Lab's track record of developing launchers on short timelines. But the Congressional memo says the Neutron pad has a significantly different “size, impeller type and architecture” compared to the company's existing pads. It also highlights the ad hoc timelines shared by other launch providers that indicate there is a lot of work remaining to be included in RFPs by VCSFA.

The memo includes a 2023 slide prepared by Space Systems Command that indicates the agency will begin source selection in the second quarter of the fiscal year and announce Lane 1 awards in the middle of the third quarter, which runs from April to June.

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