If we’re honest, Astra’s first orbital launch attempt in September just wasn’t that impressive. Within 10 or 15 seconds of launch, Rocket 3.1 began to veer off course, and he had to be ordered to stop before flying out of his security corridor.
After the flight, Astra’s leaders put a brave face on the short mission, saying they were “pretty happy” with the rocket’s performance and believed they were dealing with a software problem rather than a hardware problem. Still, it didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the four-year-old company. The COVID-19 pandemic has started to flare up again around the world, fundraising has been tight in the industry and it looked like Astra still had a long way to go before going into space.
In the midst of these dark times, however, Astra’s team of about 100 employees put their heads down, put on their masks and plowed on. In doing so, they performed something of a miracle, preparing Rocket 3.2 and bringing it to the company’s launch site in Alaska in less than three months.
That in itself is a remarkable achievement. Compared to other commercially developed small rockets, three months is an instant. Northrop Grumman took 15 months between the flight of his first and second Pegasus missiles; SpaceX needed a year between the first two Falcon 1 missions; and Rocket Lab needed eight months between its first and second Electron flight.
Bad weather prevented launch attempts Friday and throughout the weekend, but by Tuesday, winds eased at their highest levels over the spaceport in Kodiak, Alaska. At 12:55 PM local time, despite the leaden sky above us, conditions were acceptable, and the rocket with its five main engines roared to life.
This time there were no problems with the rocket taking off. It followed its flight trajectory almost to death. A few minutes into the flight, the main engines stopped and the second stage disintegrated. His engine also burned. This upper stage then burned off all of its propellant, simulating the deployment of a payload into space.
Unfortunately, Rocket 3.2 did not reach the track. The company hadn’t gotten the kerosene-to-oxidizer mixture quite right—something difficult to test on the ground—and ended up with an excess of liquid oxygen. If the top stage had burned kerosene for a few more seconds, the top stage would have entered orbit. As it was, the booster peaked at a peak of 390 km above the Earth’s surface.
“It’s really hard for us to digest the outcome here,” Chris Kemp, Astra’s CEO and the company’s co-founder, said during a conversation with reporters. While he said the company could still raise money during the pandemic, he admitted that successful flight would unlock contracts and give Astra greater access to cheaper capital. “It’s a really nice Christmas present for the team as we head into the holiday season,” he said.
Taking the next step
The company’s next booster, Rocket 3.3, is already 75 percent complete, Kemp said. Based on an initial assessment of Tuesday’s flight, this missile does not require major hardware or software changes. Instead, the company will adjust the fuel mixture in the upper stage to provide the performance needed to launch a small payload into orbit. He declined to say how much cargo Rocket 3.3 was likely to carry. However, Astra has a customer for the mission and it will be launched in “a few months”. It has customers for more than a dozen missions and now expects to sign more.
Astra was founded to provide fast and low-cost access to space for small satellites. The fast turnaround time between the first and second flight suggests it can deliver on this promise. It’s also impressive that the company only needs five people to set up its launch site. At Kodiak, Astra has a concrete pad and a tent. A week before the rocket was launched, the launcher, propellant and other equipment arrived in four shipping containers from California. A team of five set up the launch system and employees at Astra’s headquarters in Alameda, California, monitored the launch via cloud computing.
This flexible approach to launch, requiring a minimal amount of infrastructure, is the kind that the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was trying to promote through its launch challenge. The competition ended without a winner earlier this year, but Astra came the closest to claiming the prize.
“I’m happy to see Astra achieve most of their goals with this flight, after seeing how hard their team has worked,” said Todd Master, who managed the launch challenge for DARPA. “A diversity of launchers with a range of capabilities and prices portends interesting opportunities for future use by the Department of Defense.”
List image by John Kraus for Astra