On Monday, Astra arrived within 53 seconds of launching its Rocket 3.0 from a spaceport in southern Alaska. With less than a minute to go into the countdown, a sensor provided some data about the missile that Astra’s chief executive, Chris Kemp, said is “really worrying us.”
Despite the prospect of losing a $2 million check from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and possibly $10 million more later this month, Astra’s engineers halted the launch attempt. They thought the problem could be with a faulty sensor, as there was occasional bad data, but they weren’t sure.
“By making the decision not to fly today, we have the opportunity to fly this missile safely at a later date,” Kemp said. He said the company is likely “weeks” away from trying again rather than months.
The DARPA Launch Challenge — which aimed to demonstrate flexible and responsive launch capabilities in days, not years, for national defense — essentially gave Astra a month’s notice to prepare a missile and launch it from Alaska. The company quickly sprang into action, sending its small booster to the launch site and setting up the site in less than two weeks. A combination of bad weather over the weekend and the technical failure on Monday gave the chance to sink. “We were very disappointed not to be able to hand over a large check today,” said Todd Master, launch challenge manager for DARPA.
Failure to launch Monday does not detract from what Astra has achieved. The privately backed company of Alameda, California, was the last company left in a competition with 18 teams that had originally qualified. And the reality is that they did what almost no other company has ever done with a liquid-fueled orbital rocket by going so fast from the factory to the launch pad and trying to take off. It’s especially noteworthy because this marks the first time the company has attempted an orbital launch of any kind.
That no company won the challenge underlines how difficult it remains to build rockets – even small ones – and put them into orbit quickly. Plus, this is something DARPA has been pushing for a long time, dating back to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. If it was easy, someone would have done it already.
In 2003, DARPA created the Falcon-Force Application and Launch from CONtinental United States program. The Falcon program had two separate goals. The first involved developing a hypersonic weapon, and the second was a low-cost launch vehicle that could put at least 1,000 pounds into orbit for $5 million per launch. In addition to giving the military a new launch capability, DARPA hoped this would spur a stagnating U.S. aerospace industry.
A Falcon for Falcon 1
In one big way, the program succeeded. When DARPA began soliciting bids from industry for the small missile program in May 2003, it eventually received 24 responses. The military awarded nine grants of about half a million dollars each for design studies. While some of the awards went to established companies, such as Lockheed Martin, the majority went to smaller companies such as SpaceX. In the end, SpaceX and AirLaunch, who wanted to drop their rocket from a C-17 aircraft, emerged as finalists. Only SpaceX has ever made it to space, but the program was canceled before it did.
While the vast majority of SpaceX’s early funding came from founder Elon Musk, the fact remains that DARPA supported it with some development funds and paid for the payload used in the company’s first Falcon 1 launch. In this sense, DARPA was the first government agency to buy the new company and support the concept of low-cost, fast-launch.
SpaceX would pivot away from the Falcon 1 rocket a few years later, leading to a new generation of small satellite launch companies such as Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Firefly and Astra. Nearly two decades later, the US industry has almost reached the goal of flexible and responsive launch, but it’s not quite there yet.
DARPA will continue to push for this opportunity. Although Master said no plans are final, the agency wants to include “responsive launch” in a future military exercise. What form this will take isn’t clear yet, but it may involve asking a launch company to put a satellite into orbit during an exercise that will yield new data and explain the military’s way into space. tactical way used changes.