“Eighty percent of the cost of the whole rocket is in that first stage, both in terms of materials and labor,” Peter Beck, the chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview on Friday.
SpaceX pioneered a new age in reusable rockets and now regularly lands the first stages of its Falcon 9 rockets and flies them over and over. The second stages of the Falcon 9 (as well as Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket) are still discarded, typically burning up while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX is designing its next-generation super rocket, Starship, to be entirely reusable. Competitors like Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance, and companies in China, are similarly developing rockets that would be at least partially reusable.
NASA’s space shuttles were also partially reusable, but required extensive and expensive work after each flight, and they never lived up to their promise of airliner-like operations.
For the Falcon 9, the booster fires several times after it separates from the second stages, slowing it en route to a setting down softly on either a floating platform in the ocean or a site on land. The Electron is a much smaller rocket, which makes reuse more challenging.
“You have to spend every bit of your propellant just to get missions up,” Mr. Beck said. That ruled out the possibility of propulsive landings like the Falcon 9 boosters.