FAA Approves Rocket Lab’s Operator License for Wallops Launch Complex

FAA Approves Rocket Lab’s Operator License for Wallops Launch Complex

On the heels of a successful return-to-flight launch, Rocket Lab announced today that the Federal Aviation Administration has approved its operator license to launch rockets from Wallops Island, VA. Rocket Lab’s launches to date have been from New Zealand, so this will give the California-based company not just another launch site, but one on U.S. soil.

Rocket Lab launched its 14th mission Sunday night Eastern Daylight Time (Monday in New Zealand) from Launch Complex-1 in Mahia, New Zealand.

The payload atop the Electron rocket was a 100 kilogram-class synthetic aperture radar satellite, Sequoia, for Capella Space. It can image features on Earth with 0.5 meter resolution. Rocket Lab bestows its missions with whimsical names, in this case “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical.”

The success was particularly sweet because the previous launch on July 4 failed due to a faulty electrical connection in the second stage. All seven small satellites onboard were lost. It was the first Electron failure since its inaugural mission in 2017.  The 12 successful missions since then, including Sunday’s, have put a total of 54 small satellites into orbit.

Electron can place a maximum of 225 kilograms of payload into low Earth orbit (LEO), but that is being upgraded to 300 kilograms.

Rocket Lab is arguably the most successful of the many companies offering small rockets to launch small payloads into LEO and beyond. With the dramatic growth in the number of nanosats, cubesats and smallsats needing launch, demand is skyrocketing. Rocket Lab is building a second launch pad at Mahia, but decided it needed a second launch site — Launch Complex-2 (LC-2) — to provide responsive launch particularly for U.S. government missions.

It chose the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA.  MARS is operated by the Virginia Commonwealth Space Flight Authority (VCSFA). Northrop Grumman launches Antares rockets carrying Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station from MARS Pad 0A.

Rocket Lab completed construction of LC-2 in December, just 10 months after it began, and announced its first customer is the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program.

Rocket Lab Electron rocket on its pad at Wallops Island, VA, Credit: Rocket Lab.

Today, Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said the company now has its Launch Operator License from the FAA for LC-2. It is good for 5 years, allowing the company to launch multiple times without needing separate FAA licenses each time. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation facilitates, regulates and promotes commercial space launches and reentries. In response to the Trump Administration’s Space Policy Directive-2, it is modernizing and simplifying its licensing regulations.

Beck said: “Having FAA Launch Operator Licenses for missions from both Rocket Lab launch complexes enables us to provide rapid, responsive launch capability for small satellite operators. With 14 missions already launched from LC-1, Electron is well established as the reliable, flight-proven vehicle of choice for small sat missions spanning national security, science and exploration. With our upcoming missions from Launch Complex 2, we’re ushering in an era of even more flexibility and launch availability for these important government missions.” 


Next year, Electron will send a cubesat, CAPSTONE, into lunar orbit for NASA from Wallops. The agency is planning to place a small space station, Gateway, into a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) around the Moon to support the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface. CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) will test and verify the stability of the NRHO and conduct other Artemis-related experiments. NASA will be using Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft bus for CAPSTONE, too.

Among Rocket Lab’s other customers are universities, companies, and U.S. government national security agencies including DARPA and the National Reconnaissance Office.

Electron was designed as an expendable launch vehicle, but Rocket Lab plans to try and recover its first stage, as SpaceX does with Falcon although Electron is much, much smaller. The first attempt will be on flight 17 later this year.

With three launch pads at two launch sites — New Zealand and Wallops — Rocket Lab says it can launch 130 times a year.

Rocket Lab announced late today that it will hold an event where Beck will share “exciting news” on September 3 at 2:00 pm ET.

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