Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle has received Category 1 certification from NASA, meaning it is authorized for use on more important missions, opening up a whole new revenue stream for the growing launch provider.
The certification was largely based on the success of "This One's for Pickering" in late 2018, the company's fourth commercial launch, which took a batch of NASA cubesats into orbit as part of the ELaNa-19 mission. This experimental mission was undertaken as part of NASA's Venture Class Launch Services initiative to test out newer and smaller launch vehicles using non-critical payloads.
"We have a strong partnership with NASA that was established through the ELaNa-19 launch and continues today with the upcoming CAPSTONE mission that will see our Electron launch vehicle and Photon spacecraft deliver a NASA satellite to lunar orbit next year," said Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck in a news release.
Certification categories go from 1-3, from "high risk" to "low risk," based largely on successful launches, which as you might imagine is something of a catch-22: You need the launches to get the certification, but you need the certification to get the launches. Fortunately, one can break the cycle with non-essential missions like small experimental satellites — which is sort of the purpose of the VCLS program.
NASA also conducts careful inspections of facilities, manufacturing, and all that. NASA's Darren Bedell, risk manager for the agency's Launch Services group, noted that "Rocket Lab's management team are deliberate in ensuring processes are controlled, repeatable, and measurable to ensure mission success."
Category 2 certification is in process, but is of course even more stringent and requires six consecutive successful missions with the same rocket configuration. Rocket Lab has 10 in a row at present, but there's likely a lot of paperwork involved as well.
The company's next launch is for NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office and the University of New South Wales — window opens on March 27 (local New Zealand time).